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ActivCard Gets Physical (Security) with Linux - page 2

If This Had Been an Actual Emergency

  • June 26, 2003
  • By Brian Proffitt

Smart cards are one of those things that has been around for quite some time, but widespread adoption (especially here in the US) has not taken off by leaps and bounds. In Europe, smart card technology is used in far more public applications, such as a wallet card, where certain values (usually of currency) are stored on the card and are credited or debited as the situation dictates.

Security on smart cards are provided by the fact they are not just simple cards with magnetic information encoded on strips, which is commonly used on credit cards or many physical-access key cards. Such cards have their information stored entirely on those strips, which can easily "sniffed" by anyone with a magnetic reader.

Smart cards, on the other hand, store memory within the card itself, typically with a processor and memory unit. Information is closely held, usually with cryptographic tokens. Unless the tokens on the card and the system that's trying to read it match, that information will stay on the card.

Besides security, magnetic cards have another important disadvantage over smart card: the information stored upon them is necessarily static. Credit cards hold account number, expiration date, and some proprietary company identification--and that's pretty much it. All of the data about your account is actually stored on a computer somewhere in the depths of your credit card's bank. Hence, the need to dialup the server for authentication every time you buy something at the store.

With the processor on board the smart card, there is the capability of dynamic storage, which can keep any kind of data, such as currency, medical records--any information that's important and likely to be updated from time to time.

So far, the real obstacle for wider implementation of smart cards are their cost. A simple magnetic-strip card costs about 7 cents, while a smart card can cost out at around US $1.

Another obstacle to their deployment has been that up until now, their use in the enterprise simply has not been a high priority for IT workers. But, according to ActivCard's David Putnam, this hesitancy is rapidly changing, due in large part to the early adoption characteristics of the tech-hungry U.S. military.

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