SMI's new smart card chip improves security, memory

Siemens Microelectronics Inc. (SMI) has begun shipping a new 16-bit chip for smart cards that adds more security and memory to better enable multiple applications on a single card.

Company officials said the product is the industry's first 16-bit cryptocontroller chip that is specifically designed for smart card applications. The chip utilizes public-key encryption technology to support applications such as cash transactions that require high security.

"In the beginning, a standard 8-bit microcontroller was used in smart cards, but users and service providers [such as] banks realized that they need some kind of security on top of that," said Joerg Borchert, vice president of SMI's security and chip card IC business unit.

The chip, the first on the market that encrypts the contents of the memory stored on the card, aims to address this need, he said.

The company's new chip supports 16 bits for higher performance, comes with a co-processor to compute cryptographic algorithms, including elliptical curve, and adds a higher level of security by processing RSA algorithms with key lengths of up to 1,024 bits.

The chip also comes with 32K of Electrical Erasable and Programmable Read Only Memory, 32K of ROM and 1.2K of RAM, which acts as the scratch pad and intermediate storage.

Borchert said the company is talking to smart card vendors and government agencies such as the General Services Administration, the latter of which will be testing multiple-application smart cards this fall. Jonathan Cassell, a senior industry analyst at Dataquest, San Jose, Calif., said SMI's announcement is consistent with the biggest trend in the smart card industry: the move toward multiple-application cards. Until now, the cards have basically been fixed-function devices, he said.

"Now cards are becoming more like computers, with the capability to run different applications," Cassell said. "This makes the new cards more useful than most of today's smart cards. We're also seeing the introduction of Java-based cards. It's an open programming environment where applications can be written for any smart card."

Although 8-bit smart cards can support multiple applications, 16-bit cards are better-suited for such purposes, Cassell said. "A 16-bit chip is halfway between a regular smart card and a computer," he said. "Sixteen-bit microcontrollers are intrinsically faster than 8-bit." He said the encryption feature also becomes more important for smart cards when they are used for transactions over the Internet.

Michael Noll, co-director of the smart card initiatives team at GSA, said increased security on smart cards will become more important as agencies do more business on the Internet and online.

Noll, whose office is leading the government's effort for smart card standardization and interoperability, said not all applications will require high-level security. "If I'm using a smart card for access to a door, I don't need the power or cost probably proposed in [the Siemens] card," he said. "But if I'm using biometrics and digital signature access to computer systems, this may be something that I want."

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