What is a Smartcard?

A Smartcard is a credit card sized plastic card with an integrated microchip embedded in it. The microchip is much smaller than the card and in embedded in the card in such a way that it fits inside the dimensions of the card. So although a Smartcard looks, feels and performs functions similar to a credit card, it has greater storage and has many more functions compared to a standard credit card with magnetic strips. Smartcards can also be used for many purposes and in a few cases are designed to perform multiple functions. However, their most common usage till date is as Identity Cards, Credit Cards and SIM Cards.

A smartcard is technically a miniscule computer. They are able to read, store, process and output data while also being able to hold a considerable amount of information in their memories. This enables them to fulfill a lot of requirements that standard credit cards with magnetic strips simply can't fulfill. For example, even a basic smartcard can hold a hundred times more data than a card with a magnetic strip. Further, a Smartcard functions as an independent system and therefore offers added security. A card reader has to communicate with its microchip and authenticate itself first before a smartcard lets it read its memory.

smartcard

All smartcards can only be read with a Smartcard reader. Most of the time, the readers are paired with host computers which in turn run software that controls the smartcard reader. There are different kinds of software for various smartcard readers. They are designed to run card readers on computers with standard operating systems such as desktops. There are various kinds of card reader software that are compatible with different operating systems. For example, there are smart card readers for windows and an entirely different cac reader for Mac.

Cac reader for Mac

While Smartcard readers for windows can operate exclusively on computers that run the windows operating system; A Cac reader for Mac can work only on Mac systems. The software to read smart cards is usually supplied to or purchased by those who need to read them on a regular basis. Unlike magnetic cards however, information on Smart cards cannot be stolen or manipulated with off the shelf technology. This is because the integrated microchip in smart cards prevents unauthorized readers from accessing their memories. Since Smart cards are read via gold contacts on the surfaces of their microchips, they do not wear out over time like magnetic strips do.

Smartcards are most commonly used as Access cards, Credit cards, Loyalty cards, Satellite TV cards, SIM cards, Identity cards and Key cards amongst a host of other usages. One of their most high profile uses is as Common Access Cards or CAC by various agencies of the United States Department of Defense. A smartcard offers multipoint authentication. That is, apart from swiping the card, users sometimes needs to key in other data like pin numbers and access numbers known only to them. The multiple advantages that the smart card holds over magnetic strips make them a very safe and secure means of authentication and transaction across all industries that use the smartcard.

a smartcard