Smart cards aren't just cards anymore

Smart cards aren't just cards anymore

The concept of the smart card is undergoing some rethinking.

The traditional form factor has been a plastic card used much like a credit card. But the expansion of contactless technology lets the chips that make the cards smart be embedded in almost any kind of device, from a key fob to a cell phone.

And at this week's CardTech-SecurTech conference in Washington, the new forms and applications are getting a lot of attention.

Contactless payment was the topic of the conference's opening keynote, and French contactless chip designer Jacek Kowalski received an award as an industry visionary.

A finalist for the card technology implementation award presented Tuesday was a Navy pilot program for contactless smart cards carrying biometric information. The cards, used for physical access control at Pacific Fleet headquarters in Hawaii, contain fingerprint and hand geometry data.

The Navy program is an important trial for the Defense Department, which is considering whether to include contactless chips and biometric data in its next-generation Common Access Cards.

With more than 5 million cards now issued, the CAC project is by far the government's largest smart-card program. It too was a finalist for the implementation award.

But the award went to the government of Hong Kong, which has issued smart identification cards to 7 million residents.

Although the technology is beginning to gain some traction, smart cards have been slow to take off in this country. Some companies are betting that putting the chips in new devices will speed consumer adoption.

American Express Co. is testing a system in New York, Phoenix and Singapore that uses a chip in a key chain that piggybacks on merchants' existing point-of-sale technology. AmEx CIO Glen Salow said the goal is for ExpressPay to replace cash for small purchases at places such as gas stations and convenience stores where fast transactions are a priority for both customers and merchants.

A contactless chip reader added to the traditional POS terminal converts the data to a magnetic-stripe format. ExpressPay transactions are processed like credit card purchases, using the same back-end systems. Because there is no card to swipe and no signature required, contactless transactions are quicker than either credit card or cash purchases, Salow said.

American Express, which issued the country's first smart credit cards in 1999, is committed to making the chip technology work. The same chips could be incorporated in devices such as MP3 players and cell phones to enable remote payments for products and services, Salow said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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