What is an Access Control Smart Card?

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Smart card

Smart cards are generally a plastic card that has an embedded microchip and possibly a micro-processor. These chips can store data or process data. The data is usually associated with information and a value and transact with the card’s processor if it has one. Systems that can greatly benefit from smart card technology are inventory management, people management, time card and attendance, access control, and health care. Really anywhere you want to monitor and or limit access to an area you can see the value in smart cards.

Smart cards have been around for decades in many types of applications. Two applications that seem to have been around forever would be ATM/credit cards and calling cards. In the phone cards the magnetic strip made the card a “smart” card. It stored information such as showing how many minutes you had on the card per a calling zone or country code. If you called outside of the country you activated the card in, you typically got fewer minutes as it costs more to call different countries.   ATM/credit cards carry considerably more information in their magnetic stripe. Going down the road to 1999, people found you could get devices to read peoples card at range. For example if I had the right device I could read your card while in your pocket. Then clone your card and start spending your money. I know because it actually happened to me.  Basically using the reader the criminals could make dummy cards of my original.

Newer smart card technology works off of layers of materials. These cards are made of pressed or laminated polyester or PVC. Inside of the basic smart card is a small chip with a copper wire coming off of it wrapped into many windings.  This card is set to a certain frequency. Your card reader picks it up as a specific number value. This value corresponds to a column in a database. This typically lets an individual gain access to a restricted area or areas. The database has to have the card added to allow access to these restricted areas.  This type of card, sometimes referred to as RFID passive smart card, has no information of value stored on it. They have a number printed on the back of them and that is the value you must enter into your database that controls the access. The range on this card is 10 centimeters. Most people end up tapping the card to the reader.

Memory smart cards have the ability to store and delete and that is it. Institutions that have implemented this force wide are the military.  These cards shine for soldier record keeping. Before a soldier had to carry paper records between duties stations as they were moved about the world. This was open to many issues from loss to tampering with. Most soldiers have two files. The first is your 201 file that tracks where you have been and what you have done in your career with the military. The other file is their medical record.  The 201 file is important to limit access to as external threats may use them to try to impersonate personnel to gain access to restricted areas, or set themselves up for early promotions. The medical file is extremely important as it has your medical history contained. Past surgery’s and health issues that doctors need to know now. Instead of waiting for the paper file to show up, now with a swipe of a card all information can be realized.  Memory cards can be fitted with different storage sizes depending on your needs. As cards of this type are straight memory cards your reader would need to be configured to read it. Readers are not smart in that they have an auto detect feature to determine card type and protocols needed to read the card.

Micro-processor cards in the family of smart cards are engineered for high security encryption protocols and counter measures. Smart cards of this type are designed to allocate memory into separate sectors for storage for files assigned to a specific function or application. Built inside of the card are the microprocessor and a battery.  The CPU operates similar to a standard PC processor in the sense it does have an operating system with capabilities that permits different and multiple functions. The ability to run different applications and types of data gives the card versatility the early cards just did not physically allow for. With the ability of these cards to have applications on them other types of security encryption can be used further prevent tampering and cloning of cards.  The technology allows secure identification of the individuals and allows updates of information with card replacement. This can lower programming costs and enable re-usability as updates and changes come out. Similar to a PC when updating the operating system. You download new information install it and configure it, you would not just run out and buy another computer. The card does have to have power in many cases. A small battery will be installed inside of the card.  Some card manufactures designed the card for the battery to be replaced others do not. Buyers beware on which card you get as this can turn out to be a hidden cost on an already expensive system.

There are many configuration options for the chips for cards in this category. Cards with smart chips can support cryptography public key infrastructure to Java, so they are very versatile.

The form factor on these cards varies. The card most people have seen is about the size of a standard credit card but considerably thicker. That style accommodates both RFID and smart cards.  Another style with several variants is the key fobs. They can be the size of a key fob for a car, some smaller than others. All can be smart but few if any allow for battery replacement.  Another newer style is a sticker the size of a nickel and about 2 mm thick. That is great for sticking to a cell phone or other device you have all the time.

Access control cards come in many shapes and size with many different features. Always make sure to read and ask questions before purchasing yours.

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