Designing a universal smart card
- By Heather Harreld
- Dec 10, 2000
When the Department of Veterans Affairs began planning for a massive smart
card project that would encompass issuing more than 200,000 cards to veterans,
interoperability among its branches and other agencies, such as the Defense
Department, was a key requirement. That's because the smart cards, which
will include all health registration and enrollment data, will serve as
veterans' identification cards and will be used at multiple health care
However, officials couldn't find a mainstream industry standard to draw
upon to ensure that the cards would work with readers at various locations,
said Kent Simonis, director of the Veterans Health Administration's health
That was before the General Services Administration leveraged its procurement
power to design an interoperability standard to enable different smart cards
to work together across government. GSA, along with vendors and agency representatives,
drafted an open interoperable specification to enable smart cards purchased
by one agency off the governmentwide Smart Access Common ID Card contract
to work with applications and smart card readers used by other agencies.
"In the absence of those, we would have had to develop our own requirements
and perhaps would not have been as successful," Simonis said.
No doubt the GSA efforts are an important first step: The work is credited
with spurring many agencies to jump-start projects once delayed by the lack
of standards. But there is concern that the government initiative doesn't
go far enough.
Indeed, some IT planners think that as they add new applications to
their smart cards they will need to either develop their own additional
standards or wait for standards that encompass new applications to gain
GSA Takes Lead
When GSA awarded its estimated $1.5 billion smart card contract in
May to five prime vendors — KPMG Consulting LLC, Litton/PRC Inc., Electronic
Data Systems Corp., 3-G International Inc. and Logicon Inc. — it required
all smart cards to interoperate so that agencies could use cards for multiple
Because smart card vendors offer proprietary solutions based on their
own specifications, vendors and GSA had to develop a neutral specification
that all can support. The specification covers five smart card applications:
identification; logical access control, such as access to a computer network;
physical access control, such as access to a building; biometrics, such
as fingerprint scans; and cryptographic services, such as digital signatures.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology is helping GSA test
the specifications in 20 cards with 20 readers — a process expected to last
"We were in a position to take the lead here...in an attempt to foster
interoperability," said Mike Brooks, director of GSA's Center for Smart
Card Solutions. "GSA is pretty much in the driver's seat because we are
the procurement arm of the federal government. Agencies with limited budgets
need the flexibility to use Brand B reader with Brand 2 cards...instead
of being locked into one solution."
GSA based its specification on the ISO 7816 standard, which is composed
of several parts. The first four parts of the standard, for example, address
the physical attributes of the card, including where the chip is placed,
how it is mounted and the electrical interface of the cards. Industry experts
said this portion of the standard is considered to be fairly stable. As
long as those protocols have been implemented correctly, readers should
work well with cards on the same operating systems.
Still, the vendors, at the request of GSA, will have to develop middleware
to enable different platforms to support different cards; this middleware
will create extra administration overhead for agencies, said Gilles Lisimaque,
senior vice president at Gemplus SA and vice president of the Smart Card
"When you want interoperability, you have those multiple layers and
then you have to manage them," he said. "There won't be one middleware that
will be stable forever. Multiple middleware will have to be managed." In
addition, although GSA's specification covers applications that have attracted
agencies' interest, as they move to tap additional smart card applications — such as financial trans-actions — agencies will have to write their own
interfaces or rely on other evolving industry standards. That is because
reader manufacturers have yet to agree upon a common standard interface,
and a variety of different protocols are available.
In the world of smart cards, there is no shortage of standards under
development. Among the many are the PC/SC (Personal Computing/Smart Card)
standard for smart cards operating in the Windows environment; the OpenCard
standard, designed to allow cards to interoperate across multiple hardware
and software platforms; and the JavaCard, which enables Java technology
to run on smart cards.
"The operating systems are very important," said John Moore, chairman
of the Federal Smart Card Users Group and director of smart card studies
in GSA's Office of Electronic Government. "If you have a different operating
system on the card and on the accepting device, that's a problem to start
with. It limits what you can do in reading the cards. It limits...how robustly
you can tie in to all the [application program interfaces]."
The VA's Simonis said his agency might eventually need to deploy standards
that would allow its cards to interoperate with card readers in Europe or
those deployed at private-sector hospitals so a veteran could use a smart
card at any of these facilities.
Although only a small group of veterans are authorized to receive VA-covered
care at private facilities, officials envision some day storing details
of what procedures and treatment are authorized by the VA on smart cards
carried by those veterans.
Another challenge for some agencies is marrying "contact" applications,
where the card is placed or swiped through a reader, with contactless applications,
which use an electromagnetic signal and antenna to send and receive data.
Although work is being done on a standard to support both types of applications
on one card called a Combi card, no such standard has gained widespread
Tina Pemberton, financial analyst at the Education Department's Office of
Student Financial Assistance Programs, said officials there are now evaluating
how to use a multipurpose smart card to control physical access, manage
assets, track transit benefits such as mass transit fare and access computers
and networks. Some of these applications, like physical access control,
would be contactless and some, like a computer log on, would be contact
The question is, "How could you get these different functions to work
together on a single card?" Pemberton said.
There are other potential pitfalls for the ISO 7816 standard for applications
falling outside the basic set initially identified.
For example, ISO 7816 offers various protocol options that differ by
application, Lisimaque said. For a smart card that would be used with a
cellular phone, developers would want to use a protocol that would require
low voltage to conserve as much of the battery of the phone as possible.
But for a smart card to be used at a banking terminal, security would be
a much more important objective than voltage, so a different protocol would
be used, Lisimaque said.
"They do not have the same constraints," he said. "Depending on the
application, people are going to take one protocol...to save the battery
or want the ability to crunch numbers fast with the highest cryptography
In addition, the GSA specifications do not apply to smart cards until
after they have been "personalized" by vendors, a method that can vary,
said Bill Bialick, technology director at Spyrus Inc.
When a smart card is manufactured at the factory, it is essentially
a raw chip with some storage features. The card vendor then writes the operating
system that will tell the card how to behave and will set it up for the
user, a process that includes loading digital certificates and cryptography
keys on the card.
"How you get it set up is different per vendor," Bialick said. "That's
going to be a problem. There still is uniqueness to each of them in some
part of their life. Vendors try to put that uniqueness in to draw the market
Harreld is a freelance writer based in Cary, N.C.