Skip to content
Quick Start for:

Card Technology Options

Note: To help the reader navigate this report, a chart of acronyms is provided at the beginning of Chapter 2 in Exhibit 1 .

2.6. Card Technology Options

One of the key technology decisions in developing an ESD system is how to provide access to the system while guaranteeing the security of the system and the data it contains. It is a decision that applies to both online and off-line systems. A variety of technology tools are available for this purpose. In selecting a technology, an important consideration is identifying the cost and operational implications of that technology for all the stakeholders, including the state. Some tools, like magnetic stripe cards, are primarily access devices to a centralized system, while other tools such as smart cards and biometric measurements, can be used either as access devices in a centralized system, or as components of an off-line, decentralized system.

When a person accesses an ESD system, the system first must verify that the person is who they say they are. This can be done using something that the person has (like a card), something that the person knows (like a PIN), or something that the person is (like a fingerprint). There are numerous technologies in existence today that facilitate this process; however, the fingerprint or other biometric technique is the method with the highest level of security that can actually provide an assurance that the user is the person they purport to be. The following sections describe the most commonly used cards and technology tools. The information is intended to assist in understanding the uses and limitations of the existing technologies, and why certain tools are more appropriate for some applications than for others.

2.6.1. Magnetic Stripe Cards

A magnetic stripe card is a plastic card that contains a magnetized stripe on one side which can be read by readers designed for that purpose. Virtually all credit and debit cards used commercially in the United States are magnetic stripe cards. The current Lone Star Card, along with most other EBT cards, is a magnetic stripe card.

The advantages are:

  • Proven, established technology;
  • Large installed commercial infrastructure;
  • Well established standards;
  • Widespread public understanding and acceptance;
  • Inexpensive to produce for new and replacement cards when compared to costs for smart cards; and
  • Relatively inexpensive to use in most online environments.

The limitations are:

  • Primarily limited to online applications (limited data storage space allows identification to a system, but not independent storage of significant amounts of data).
  • Cards are relatively easy to duplicate or counterfeit;
  • Loss of cards can be problematic if education of cardholders is not sufficient and if cards do not work well; and
  • Cards have varying levels of coercivity, and those with low coercivity are easily damaged (stripe demagnetized).

The potential applications are:

  • Any EBT application that involves transfer of funds; and
  • Any ESD application that requires only identification of the user and authorization for service.

Because of the widespread use of magnetic cards, most cards adhere to well-defined technical standards that describe the physical and magnetic characteristics for a magnetic stripe. These standards outline specifications for a storage format and information interchange. Although magnetic cards are sometimes moved past the reader head mechanically, most applications rely on manually moving the card, either through a slotted reader or into an insertion-type reader. The technique used for encoding magnetic cards is very tolerant of speed fluctuations resulting from moving the card by hand so it is easier to use than some other technologies.

International organizations such as major credit card companies impose constraints for their participating members, and standards exist for bank debit and ATM cards as well. For non-financial uses, it is not necessary to comply with these standards. For dedicated uses such as access control, people tracking, and material tracking, adhering to the minimal standards is adequate.

2.6.2. Smart Cards

There are several types of smart cards available, each suited to different types of applications. All smart cards are a credit-card sized card with an embedded computer chip. The technology originated in the seventies in Germany, Japan, and France, and in the mid-1980s, major rollouts such as the French National Visa Debit Card and France Telecom provided the industry with high volume opportunities. Since then, the industry has been growing at a tremendous rate, shipping more than one billion cards per year since 1998. The smart card is now the card of choice for Europe and Japan. Many industry experts believe this is because the telephone systems in much of Europe cannot support online technology, and because billing systems are not designed for unlimited local access. Typically, a fee is charged for each telephone call. Thus smart cards and off-line transactions are more economical in this environment. 32

A memory-only smart card is the most basic type of chip card. It contains a chip capable of storing data but not capable of processing information. Conceptually, it is similar to a floppy disk. They are useful for stored value or electronic purse applications in which a financial value is stored on the card and debited when the card is used for a purchase. Many mass transit and campus card applications use memory-only cards.

A microprocessor chip card, or integrated circuit card, can add, delete, and otherwise manipulate information in its memory. It can be viewed as a miniature computer with an input/output port, operating system, and hard disk. Microprocessor chips are currently available with eight, 16, and 32 bit architectures. Their data storage capacity ranges from 300 bytes to 32,000 bytes, with larger sizes expected as semiconductor technology advances. The ability to download not just data but applications is being advanced by Sun Microsystems with JavaCard technology and by Mondex with Multos. The more sophisticated cards have the capability to work with public key encryption and digital signatures.

A contactless card is a smart card that also includes a miniature radio transmitter that allows the information on the chip to be read remotely, without the need to physically insert the card in a reader. For this reason, they are also referred to as proximity cards. Depending on the application, the card may contain a memory only or an integrated circuit chip. For example, transit applications that merely debit a fare typically use a memory only contactless card.

The advantages are:

  • Robust technology - has the ability to store significant amounts of data on the card itself;
  • Ability to change/update data stored on the card (for micro-processor cards);
  • Can be used in conjunction with either online or off-line systems;
  • Used in distributed, off-line applications to allow the user to maintain greater control of data than in centralized, online system;
  • Established technology; widely used in other countries for the past fifteen years;
  • Contactless cards do not require physical contact with a card reading device;
  • Contactless cards have a much more rapid read/response time than any type of card requiring a card reader;
  • Enables a higher level of security than magnetic stripe cards; and
  • Relatively difficult to duplicate or counterfeit (requires much more sophisticated equipment).

The limitations are:

  • Stored value cards require an infrastructure that supports reloading value onto the card;
  • Most of the installed infrastructure is outside the United States;
  • Does not have universally agreed upon technical standards, making investment in system components more risky;
  • Cards are more expensive than magnetic stripe cards (currently as much as five times higher, although price is steadily declining as usage increases); and
  • Because of limited use in the United States, the general public is not familiar with the cards and the level of public acceptance is unknown.

The potential applications are:

  • Applications that require storage of data on the card such as WIC food prescriptions or health data;
  • Applications shared by multiple agencies requiring the ability for each to share or update client data;
  • Electronic purse (funds are downloaded onto a card from an account and then the card is used to pay for purchases such as public transportation and telephone calls);
  • Transit systems, such as toll roads, where use of a card reader is difficult;
  • Security access to facilities such as using a flash badge at a card reader to gain entry to a building;
  • Applications requiring comparison of security on a one-to-one basis, rather than a one-to-many basis such as storing a fingerprint on a card that is matched to a finger pressed on a reader; and
  • Applications where constant, reliable telecommunication with a central host is not assured.

Over 300 million mobile telephones are in use worldwide with smart cards that contain the mobile phone's security system and subscription information. They are personalized by inserting the smart card that contains the user's network phone number, billing information, and frequently called numbers. 33

Most of the four million small dish TV satellite receivers use smart cards for their security and subscription information. 34

The financial industry has used smart card technology in countries around the world. There are over 25 million French Visa integrated circuit debit cards and 40 million banking cards in Germany in circulation. 35

2.6.3. Bar Coded Cards

The Universal Product Code (UPC) is the bar code symbol found on most retail products around the world. In the United States, a company can obtain a unique six-digit company identification number by becoming a member of the Uniform Code Council (UCC).

The advantages are:

  • Established technology - widely used in the US since the early 1970's; primarily for UPCs; and
  • Flexible technology - can be used with a wide variety of physical media.

The limitations are:

  • Limited functionality - primarily a means of identification for a physical item;
  • No real level of security; bar codes can be easily created with common PC equipment; and
  • Due to proliferation of products in the retail marketplace, UPCs are being expanded in length.

The potential applications are:

  • Inventory control; and
  • Used as one component of a multi-technology card.

NOTE: The Lone Star Card in the EBT2 system includes a bar code for future expansion. However, no specific expansion for this technology has yet been identified.

2.6.4. Wireless Card-reader Technology

Wireless card-reader EBT technology is being piloted in New York and Florida. This technology includes an EBT terminal linked by cellular or other wireless modems to a central system. Texas sites that have previously been difficult to serve, like farmers' markets or mobile grocery delivery, could use this technology. Florida and New York are partnering with U.S. Department of Agriculture, land grant universities, agricultural extension services, and state departments of agriculture for funding, marketing, and operations. Additional uses for wireless card-reader EBT technology include disaster recovery and possibly day-to-day operations when costs for wireless technologies decrease.

2.6.5. Biometrics

A biometric system is essentially a pattern recognition system that makes a personal identification by determining the authenticity of a specific physiological or behavioral characteristic possessed by the user. An important issue in designing a practical system is to determine how an individual is identified. Depending on the context, a biometric system can be either an identification system or a verification (authentication) system. Identification requires establishing a person's identity. Verification (whether a person is who he claims he is) involves confirming or denying a person's claimed identity. Conceptually, biometrics can be used in lieu of cards as a means of access to an electronic system, or they can be used in conjunction with cards to provide efficient and secure access.

A variety of biometric measurements are currently being used as access mechanisms for systems. Biometrics is a rapidly evolving technology that is being widely used in forensics such as criminal identification and prison security, and has the potential to be used in a large range of civilian application areas. Its use is growing within the federal government as well. The Biometric Consortium is the U.S. government's focal point for research, testing, evaluation, and application of biometric-based personal identification and verification technology. The consortium is made up of federal, state, and local government employees and others in industry and academia interested in biometrics. 36

The advantages are:

  • Potentially eliminates the need for card-based access when used with a centralized system;
  • Highest level of security of all forms of access;
  • The individual possessing the biometric measure controls the measure; and
  • Can be used with either online or off-line systems.

The limitations are:

  • Not widely used by the general public; consequently, the level of acceptance is not yet known;
  • Relatively new technology with no universally adopted standards; and
  • Different types of biometrics being tried make investment in any one form of technology more risky.

The potential applications are:

  • Any online or off-line application in which a high level of security is required;
  • Prevention of unauthorized access to ATMs, cellular phones, smart cards, desktop PCs, workstations, and computer networks;
  • Secured transactions for electronic commerce and banking via the telephone or Internet;
  • Protection from identity theft; and
  • Replacement of physical keys (to buildings, automobiles, etc.) with keyless entry devices.

For biometric identification, the person to be identified is required to be physically present at the point-of-identification. Biometric techniques eliminate the need to remember a password. The most popular types of biometrics used for real-time identification are based on face recognition and fingerprint matching; other biometric systems use iris or retinal scans, speech, facial thermograms, and hand geometry.

PINs were one of the first identifiers to offer automated recognition. However, with PINs, it is the number that is recognized, not the person who has provided it. The same applies with other types of cards. The system may recognize a card, but it could be presented by anyone. PINs and cards can be easily compromised. A biometric, however, represents a unique identifier that cannot be easily transferred between individuals.

Common Biometric Methodologies

  • Fingerprint verification. There are a variety of approaches to fingerprint verification. Some methods emulate the traditional police method of matching minutiae, while others are straight pattern matching devices. Some can detect when a live finger is presented, while others cannot. To increase accuracy, some systems require images of multiple fingers. There is a greater variety of fingerprint devices available than any other biometric at present.
  • Hand geometry. As the name suggests, hand geometry devices measure the physical characteristics of the user's hand and fingers. One of the leading products uses a three dimensional perspective. It is one of the most established methodologies, offers good performance characteristics (reliability), and is relatively easy to use. This methodology is useful in applications where there are large user bases or users who may access the system infrequently and may therefore be less disciplined in their approach to the system.
  • Voice verification. This is an interesting technique considering how much voice communication takes place in everyday business transactions. Some designs have concentrated on wall mounted readers while others have sought to integrate voice verification into conventional telephone handsets. While there have been a number of voice verification products introduced to the market, many of them have suffered in practice due to the variability of both transducers and local acoustics. In addition, the enrollment procedure has often been more complicated than with other biometrics.
  • Retinal scanning. This is an established technology where the unique patterns of the retina are scanned by a low intensity light source via an optical coupler. Retinal scanning has proved to be quite accurate in use but requires the user to look into a receptacle and focus on a given point. This is not particularly convenient if the user wears glasses or has concerns about physical contact with the reading device. For these reasons retinal scanning has some user acceptance problems, although the technology itself can work well.
  • Iris scanning. Iris scanning is a less intrusive eye-related biometric. It uses a fairly conventional camera technology and requires no physical contact between user and reader. In addition, it has the potential for higher than average template matching performance. It has attracted the attention of various third-party integrators, and there is an expectation within the industry that this will result in the introduction of additional products. It has been demonstrated to work with glasses in place, and is one of the few devices that can work well in identification mode.
  • Signature verification. Signature verification enjoys a synergy with existing processes that other biometrics do not. People are accustomed to signatures as a means of transaction related identity verification and would mostly see nothing unusual in extending this to encompass biometrics. Signature verification devices have proven to be reasonably accurate in operation and lend themselves to applications where the signature is an accepted identifier.
  • Facial recognition. This is a technique which has attracted considerable interest and whose capabilities have often been misunderstood or exaggerated. It is relatively easy to accurately match two static images; however, detecting and verifying the identity of an individual within a group is much more difficult. For many users, facial recognition is an acceptable technology; however, this has had limited success in practical applications. As with other biometric technologies, improvements continue to be made.

The methodologies described above are considered the most promising techniques. Other biometric methodologies, including the use of scent, ear lobes and various other physical parameters, are generally not considered to be practical solutions. One trend in the industry is towards the use of multiple biometric measurements in combination. The strengths of one measure can balance the limitations of another.

The Role of Biometric Methodologies in ESD

Not all ESD systems require the degree of security provided by biometric measurements. The application of these methodologies has often been prompted by the identification of problems that could not be addressed by more conventional security systems. For example:

  • Prison systems. Visitors to inmates are subject to verification procedures so that identities may not be swapped during the visit - a familiar occurrence among prisons worldwide. 37
  • Driver licenses. Some drivers (particularly truck drivers) have multiple licenses or swap licenses among themselves when crossing state lines or national borders.
  • Canteen administration. Subsidized meals on school campuses are available to eligible students, a system that is being abused in some areas.
  • Benefit payment systems. Several states have implemented biometric verification procedures. Not surprisingly, the numbers of individuals claiming benefits has dropped dramatically in the process, validating the systems as an effective deterrent against multiple claims. In Texas, TDHS is currently using finger imaging with all applicants for Food Stamps and TANF and, as a result, has enhanced the integrity of the programs by essentially eliminating multiple applications for these programs. 38
  • Houston grocery store pilot. Several grocers in the Houston area are piloting the use of finger imaging for check cashing. The use of this process is voluntary. However, the participation rate is high, and fraudulent checks have been reduced significantly. 39
  • Border control. A notable example is the trail in America where travelers were issued a card enabling them to use the strategically based biometric terminals and bypass long immigration queues. 40

As with many other technologies, the price of biometric devices has declined in recent years as the use of these systems has increased. Eventually, these devices may become standard computer peripherals, lose their connotation as a sci-fi device, and gain widespread public acceptance. The difficulty, however, in recommending the use of biometric measurements in an ESD plan is that the technology is evolving rapidly, and it is uncertain which of several competing technologies, if any, will ultimately become the industry standard. The key is to move in a direction that will ensure consistency to the highest degree possible while taking advantage of all the advancing technology.

2.7. Matching Technology to the Application

The various types of card technologies described above all have appropriate uses. It is not necessary, or even desirable, to use the newest and most robust technology for every application. For example, the computing power and memory capacity of integrated circuit cards may make them appropriate for complex applications. However, a magnetic stripe card used in conjunction with an online database is a more efficient approach to providing electronic verification of Medicaid eligibility, even though it is a more limited technology. A successful strategy must match the appropriate technology to each application.

In general, those applications in which critical information changes frequently and must be readily available to individuals or entities other than the client tend to work more efficiently in an online, real time environment. For most applications, a magnetic stripe card works well as the access key to this system. In addition to the Medical ID, time and attendance tracking and cash payment systems fit this category.

For applications in which the information does not change frequently, where online communication is problematic, or where ownership of data is an issue, the use of smart cards is often a preferable solution. Employee systems for identification and facilities access, and security systems using biometric measurements are typical examples.

Cost is the other significant factor in matching technology to an application. Today, the cost of magnetic stripe cards is significantly cheaper than the cost of smart cards. Both can be used in either online or off-line environments (although the off-line uses of magnetic stripe cards are fairly limited). For an application in which either type of card can be used, a magnetic stripe card has an edge due to its lower cost. However, the cost of chip cards and the supporting infrastructure is steadily declining as the technology becomes more widely used. In most applications, the cost of the card itself is a relatively small part of the overall system cost. For applications that can be performed off-line using a smart card or online with a magnetic stripe card, the communications costs of the online approach may actually make the smart card solution less expensive.