Comparing the technologies

The National Institute of Standards and Technology issued a report in March detailing the strengths and weaknesses of several card-based technologies. The following is a synopsis of the report's findings.

Smart cards

Capacity: 32K; 64K is also available, and 120K is available to a limited extent.

NIST outlined several challenges:

It can be difficult to deploy a public-key infrastructure with contactless cards.

It can be difficult to access the card's memory through a contactless interface.

Some experts question the cards' ability to protect the confidentiality and integrity of information.

Bar codes

Capacity: 32K.

Bar codes were discussed as an alternative data storage technology and as a backup to smart cards. Their key drawback: An unproven track record.

Optical memory stripes

Capacity: 4M.

Optical memory stripes' strengths include resistance to counterfeiting, speed of transactions, reliability and standards compliance. However, few organizations use them. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services uses the technology extensively, but the infrastructure for optical cards is limited.

Among NIST's general findings:

The government needs open security standards.

Restricting the amount of data printed on cards when they're issued may decrease problems.

Cards with several technologies have more problems.

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