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Smartcards vs. RFID Tags for Security

Enterprise Security Today | April 2 2005

Supporters are quick to point out the differences between smartcards and RFID chips because critics regard the technologies as essentially the same, and they have raised concerns about potential misuses of RFID -- including electronic eavesdropping and ID theft.

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Very soon, international travelers will be able to breeze through customs checkpoints using passports outfitted with contactless smart-cards, experts told UPI's Wireless World.
With the new technology, travelers will present their passports to customs agents, who simply will swipe them across a card reader, just as checkout clerks run bags of potato chips over a laser scanner at a grocery store.

Likewise, as part of a directive signed by President George W. Bush, the Department of Homeland Security is planning to issue smart-card identification badges that will include digital images of fingerprints.

The smart-cards, which contain wireless chips, will be inserted by the U.S. State Department into all new American passports starting later this year. They will contain up to 64 bits of memory, storing each traveler's name, date of birth, city of origin and other identifying information -- including a digital image.

Because of its growth potential, major manufacturers such as Philips Semiconductors, Symbol Technologies , On Track Innovations Ltd. and others have entered the smart-card field.

Though they are similar in function to radio frequency identification devices, or RFIDs, smart-card advocates are quick to point out their differences.

"These are passive tags," said Dave Engberg, chief technology officer at CoreStreet, a technology developer in Cambridge, Mass. "That means they don't have a power source in them. All the power comes from the induction of the magnetic field generated by the device that reads the chips."

In other words, the smart-cards cannot transmit data, unlike the RFIDs.

Another difference, said Manuel Albers, director of business development at Philips Semiconductors in Foxboro, Mass., is that "the primary driver of RFID (technology) has been mainstream products -- not contactless smart-cards -- as they relate to tracking the supply chain and products."

Supporters are quick to point out the differences between the smart-cards and RFID chips because critics regard the technologies as essentially the same and they have raised concerns about potential misuses of RFID -- including electronic eavesdropping and ID theft.

Privacy rights groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union have taken this position.

"Even while the U.S. government pushed for these new, supercharged identity documents, it blocked privacy-enhancing security measures that would have protected citizens against identity theft, terrorism and surveillance, acting over the objections of security experts and others nations," the ACLU said in a statement.

As a result, Homeland Security and other agencies tend to emphasize the term "smart-card" and avoid "RFID."

"The DHS is playing a name game in response to the incessant noise of the privacy advocates, banging on pots and pans," said Robert Siciliano, a personal security and identity theft expert in Boston and author of "The Safety Minute" (Safety Zone Press).

Critics are concerned the wireless technology used in the smart-cards could make it easy for thieves to prey on travelers by outfitting themselves with portable scanners and electronically picking the pockets of those they target.

Siciliano argues these concerns are misplaced. "The battle at hand is properly identifying who's who," he said.

The smart-cards contain a digital signature algorithm -- a mathematical formula -- that makes it difficult to counterfeit other cards using the data from the original card.

"The whole bundle is protected by a digital signature," Engberg said. "There is an integrity to the data -- you cannot modify it."

The cards will come in several varieties, according to Jim McKeon, a spokesman for cardmaker TopCoder Inc. in Glastonbury, Conn., including read-only, read-write, and digital-signal transponder, which constitutes the most advanced type of card.

"The interactive read-write programming of the (DST) card provides a significant advantage for security personnel tracking and restricted access applications, like commercial airplane cockpits," McKeon said.

The card readers have a range of only about 40 inches (100 centimeters) and their efficiency already has been field tested. The government of Israel is a big proponent of the technology, and has hired On Track Innovations, a maker of contactless tags, as a primary contractor.

Engberg said customs agents and other security personnel will continue to look at a person's passport photo and compare it to the person presenting the travel document as a fail-safe measure.

"If I show up in Korea with a passport," Engberg said, "they need to look at the photo, too, and compare it. Visual inspection can be coordinated with the use of the card."

In the end, the technology will provide "more flexibility for employees and Joe Traveler," he added.

Still, the privacy controversy over the technology in identification applications -- in contrast with the use of RFID in logistics and retailing -- no doubt will continue.

"When DHS avoids the term 'RF' (radio frequency) like the plague, what does that tell you?" Siciliano asked.

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