Access in a flash

If the typical government smart card had a personality, it would be considered one-dimensional. Besides getting waved at security personnel, the primary role smart cards have found is in securing logical access to computer networks. In this scenario, users insert smart cards into readers to establish their rights to use an organization's information technology assets. The Defense Department's Common Access Card (CAC), for example, is typical of this approach.

But there's one potential use of smart cards that's barely been tapped: securing physical access. Government agencies are interested in using smart cards to control access to facilities and networks, but a couple of factors have discouraged wider use.

The act of running a smart card through a machine creates wear on the card and the reader, both of which must be periodically replaced. Smart card usage in logical access has been infrequent until now, so the rate of deterioration hasn't raised eyebrows. But that is expected to change, largely because of the heightened security environment following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In high-traffic environments such as entryways and doors within buildings, the wear from repeated swiping can be considerable and expensive. Each CAC is said to cost about $10.

Some agencies, however, are beginning to look at "contactless" smart cards. This technology employs a radio frequency ID chip. Smart cards equipped with such chips can be waved in front of a reader, which will prolong the life of the card and reader, and shave a few seconds off the time it takes to get people into secure areas.

"We believe a contactless door access approach makes more sense because of reduced wear and tear," said Malcolm MacTaggart, president and chief executive officer of CryptoCard Corp., which provides secure password technology. He says people would use a card to pass through doorways 10 to 20 times more often than they would use a card to access a network.

Contactless smart cards now are making their way into the federal market. But contactless chips come with different levels of encryption, so agencies must determine which product suits their security policies. In addition, government interoperability standards surrounding contactless technology have yet to congeal, although progress has been made (see "Work progresses on contactless interoperability," Page 20).

Security Concerns

One obstacle in the way of broader acceptance of contactless cards has been the need to ensure secure communication between card and reader. The Mifare contactless chip, which was recently embedded on a CAC during a Navy pilot program, lacks a government-approved encryption algorithm and would be inappropriate in situations requiring secure communication, said Neville Pattinson, director of business development and technology at Schlumberger Ltd. Mifare, developed by Royal Philips Electronics, is used in fare cards.

Suppliers, however, are rolling out contactless products with triple Data Encryption Standard (DES) capability. HID Corp., a major proximity card vendor, offers Triple DES encryption as an option for its iClass contactless smart cards. And Philips has launched Mifare DESFire, a Mifare product with Triple DES.

Philips officials plan in the first quarter of next year to introduce the DESFire(G). The new product will support Government Smart Card Interoperability Specification 2.1, which specifies Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2 for cryptography, according to Keith Ward, general manager for the identification and authentication solutions group at Northrop Grumman Information Technology.

The Navy's contactless pilot program used the older Mifare chip technology but met current standards and requirements, said Capt. Rob Conway, fleet liaison officer with the Navy's eBusiness Operations Office. The Navy has discussed "incorporating Triple DES technology on the contactless chip," Conway said, adding that encryption requirements will be finalized in the future.

Overall, contactless technology is maturing. Jim Dray, who directs smart card research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and serves as principal scientist for the Government Smart Card program, noted that there are contactless cards that can do everything a contact card can do, including implement cryptography.

"The underlying technology is progressing nicely," he said.

Moore is a freelance writer based in Syracuse, N.Y.

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