Smart cards are credit-card sized plastic cards that have embedded microcomputer chips. They embody the type of authentication where one is identified by what one possesses. Smart cards are used around the world for a wide variety of applications. They are used in place of coins or tokens in mass-transit toll or fare collection and in place of a health insurance card by health care providers to store personal medical information. They are also used for mobile phone security and access, online Internet banking and purchasing, and even for network login. There are two types of smart cards:
- Contact cards - cards that require contact with a card reader
- Contactless cards - cards which need to be in close proximity to an antenna
A contact card has a small gold chip on its surface which stores information. When the card is inserted into a smart card reader it makes contact with electrical connectors that can read information from the chip. Some types of cards can also be written to, as when the card reader reads an account balance on the card, deducts money from the balance, and writes the new balance to the card.
A contactless card need not be inserted into a reader and does not have a chip on its surface. Instead, it has the microchip embedded within it and an antenna coil which makes contact with a receiver some distance away using radio frequency signals. A contactless card is particularly useful when the information on it must be read quickly, such as when a car is passing through a toll booth.
Smart cards can also be categorized by the presence or absence of a microprocessor. Cards without processors, called memory cards, are used simply to store data, not manipulate it, and are also not as secure.
Smart cards containing a processor onboard (also called integrated circuit cards) can perform a wide variety of functions, such as authentication, data storage and encryption. They can store up to about 3 MB of data for as long as ten years. Smart cards with processors embedded can be thought of as an extremely small computer because they have a rudimentary operating system, a processor, data storage memory, and an input/output system. In addition to storing information, they can perform some processing, complex calculations and multiple functions.
Smart cards are often found in academic libraries, where they are used for authentication to library systems, resources and networks. They also perform other functions for the student: student identification or access to a food service account. Recently, smart cards have been used to perform network authentication in conjunction with providing a library patron with the type of Internet access they prefer—filtered or unfiltered. Since these cards can store a fair amount of information, they can record additional information, like the patron's preferred desktop or monetary balance for printing.
When used in a public library environment, smart cards can be used as a user identification card for the library circulation system; for paying fees, fines, printing or other fee-based services; for gaining Internet access; for photocopying and more. Smart cards may also be used in conjunction with a PIN, if desired, which provides an extra layer of security. For more on smart cards, see this Smart Card Basics page.