Smart Cards for Dummies
True or false: Smart cards are the same as RFID cards. The correct answer is false, although many people use the terms synonymously. Headquartered in Princeton Junction, N.J., the Smart Card Alliance (SCA) is a not-for-profit association working to promote understanding and widespread application of the technology. Randy Vanderhoof, executive director, acknowledged the tendency to categorize contactless smart card technology as RFID causes confusion and complicates efforts to educate the marketplace. “It has become a large market with diverse products and capabilities. There is no singular definition that satisfies all the different technical variations, form factors and uses,” he observed.
RFID uses radio waves to transmit information wirelessly by way of a data-containing device with a silicon chip and an antenna, and a reader with an antenna that captures the data when the device is within its range. Smart card technology involves an embedded integrated circuit that can be either a secure microcontroller, an equivalent intelligence with internal memory or a memory chip alone. Contact smart cards connect to readers with direct physical contact, while contactless smart cards communicate with readers through remote radio frequency interfaces. There are also versions containing both, called dual interface cards. Contactless cards require only close proximity to readers, and are ideal for applications demanding a very fast card interface—for instance, building entry, transit passes and low-value payment purposes. Smart cards with embedded microcontrollers can store large amounts of data and interact intelligently with smart card readers for high-security applications. Smart cards with memory chips are ideal for low and medium security applications.
“SCA [defines] smart cards ... [as] integrated circuit-enabled devices which contain a microprocessor chip capable of performing calculations and communicating data to other devices, such as readers. RFID technology generally does not contain microprocessors, and more closely operates like barcodes,” said Vanderhoof. He went on to explain RFID tags store static data and communicate at a variety of speeds and radio frequency ranges. For example, the RFID technologies used in manufacturing, shipping and object-related tracking can operate over long ranges up to 25 feet. They also have minimal built-in support for security and privacy. On the other hand, RF-enabled contactless smart cards only communicate over a specific RF frequency (13.56 MHz) and range (10 cm/ 4 inches), and are designed with security features, including encryption, to increase security of the RF communications.