Card Technologies
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When we use the terms card technologies or smart cards, what do we mean?  The easy answer is - any technology that can be placed on a card.

Typically we think of our credit or bankcard, but there are other sizes and materials used for different applications. The card can be made of plastic, paper, or even some amalgamation of materials.  The commonality is that the card is used to provide access to something and it includes some form of automatic identification and data capture technology.


There are currently three main categories when discussing card technologies -- magnetic stripe, optical cards and smart cards.

Magnetic Stripe
Magnetic stripe cards are the best known application, being used for financial cards, transit tickets and ID cards.  Financial cards include the familiar bank credit and debit cards used in automated teller machines (ATM) and point-of-sale terminals, as well as prepaid cards used in telephones and vending machines. Transit tickets range the gamut from subways, railroads, buses, toll roads to airlines. ID cards include driver licenses, employee ID badges, membership cards, and door keys.

Magnetic stripe technology is everywhere. We use cards with magnetic stripes on them everyday without even thinking about it. The technology has been with us for many years, but there are still many new things going on in the industry.

The first use of magnetic stripes on cards was in the early 1960's. London Transit Authority installed a magnetic stripe system in the London Underground (UK). By the late 1960's BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) (USA) had installed a paper-based ticket the same size as the credit cards we use today. This system used a stored value on the magnetic stripe, which was read and rewritten every time the card was used.  Credit cards were first issued in 1951, but it wasn't until the establishment of standards in 1970 that the magnetic stripe became a factor in the use of the cards.


Today financial cards all follow the ISO standards to ensure read reliability worldwide and along with transit cards constitute the largest users of magnetic stripe cards. With the advent of new technologies many people have predicted the demise of the magnetic stripe. However, with the investment in the current infrastructure this is not likely to be any time soon.

Magnetic stripe technology provides the ideal solution to many aspects of our life. It is very inexpensive and readily adaptable to many functions. The standardization of high coercivity for the financial markets has provided the industry with a new lease on life. This coupled with the advent of the security techniques now available means that many applications can expect to be using magnetic stripe technology for the next ten to twenty years.

Magentic Stripe attributes and limitations include:

  • Well established read/write technology
  • Low to medium storage capability
  • Low cost data carrier media and supporting hardware
  • Range of security developments, to suit a range of application specific needs
  • Reasonably durable materials, particularly for card-based products
  • Contact read equipment, generally requiring a card-based carrier form

Optical Cards
These data intensive cards are currently being used to store prenatal-care records, medical images and personal medical records; for high-security drivers' licenses and access/entry cards, auto repair/warranty records, secure bank debit cards, immigrant ID cards, and automated cargo manifests for Department of Defense logistics.

Optical memory cards use a technology similar to that used for music CDs or CD-ROMs. A panel of the "gold colored" laser sensitive material is laminated in the card and is used to store the information.


The material is comprised of several layers that react when a laser light is directed at them. The laser burns a tiny hole (2.25 microns in diameter) in the material which can then be sensed by a low power laser during the read cycle. The presence or absence of the burn spot indicates a "one" or a "zero". Because the material is actually burned during the write cycle, the media is a write once read many (WORM) media and the data is non volatile (not lost when power is removed).

The optical card can store between 4 and 6.6 MB of data which gives the ability to store graphical images such as photographs, logos, fingerprints, x-rays, etc. The data is encoded in a linear x-y format and ISO/IEC 11693 and 11694 standards cover the details.



Smart Cards

A smart card, chip card, or integrated circuit card (ICC) is any pocket-sized card with embedded integrated circuits.

Smart card technology rapidly gained acceptance in Europe as a telephone debit card because the high cost of communications made on-line verification of transactions very expensive. IC/smart cards are also used in vending machines, in lotteries, for secure access control to buildings and computers, for multiple application student ID cards, to scramble pay television signals, in healthcare applications, in banking, and to store automobile service histories.

Smart cards can provide identification, authentication, data storage and application processing and may provide strong security authentication for single sign-on (SSO) within large organizations. Contactless smart cards that do not require physical contact between card and reader are becoming increasingly popular for payment and ticketing applications such as mass transit and motorway tolls. Visa and MasterCard have agreed to an easy-to-implement version that was deployed in 2004–2006 in the USA.  Most contactless fare collection implementations are custom and incompatible, though the MIFARE Standard card from NXP Semiconductors has a considerable market share in the U.S. and Europe.


Smart cards are also being introduced in personal identification and entitlement scenarios at regional, national, and international levels such as citizen cards, drivers’ licenses, and patient cards.  For example, in Malaysia, the compulsory national ID system (MyKad) includes eight different applications and has 18 million users.   Contactless smart cards are also part of International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) biometric passports to enhance security for international travel.

Smart Card attributes and limitations include:

  • Growth area of AIDC technologies
  • Growing and fairly substantial support base for applications
  • Read/write and processing technology
  • Contact or close proximity (contactless cards) read capability
  • Medium to reasonably high data storage capabilities
  • Relatively low cost cards and read technology
  • Enhanced security capabilities over other card-based technologies, offering selective access to data and areas of read-only data. 
  • Encryption is used to further enhance security.



Additional Card Technology Resources

Magnetic Stripe Glossary of Terminology & Acronyms




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