Biometrics, new apps require more memory and faster data transfer
The underlying technology behind contactless smart cards hasn’t changed much in recent years. The international specification that enables different cards from different manufacturers to communicate with different readers from different vendors is stable and extremely well established.
But that does not mean manufacturers or their offerings have stagnated.
Two of the biggest changes in contactless smart card technology are the speed of the chips and the memory capacity, says Joerg Borchert, head of chip card business at Infineon. “The major topic over the last five years has been the interface speed, which has increased with higher and higher bit rates,” he says.
“The chips also are evolving to keep pace with new applications, and additional security is being built into the hardware,” Borchert explains. Additionally, he adds that contactless cards are now more durable thanks to new manufacturing techniques.
“Modern day applications require multiple applications – such as ID documents, payment and transportation – to run in parallel on the same chip,” says Stefan Barbu, head of NXP’s Secure Identity Business for the Americas. “Combining the government documents’ security requirements with the speed of transit applications and strict process regulations surrounding the financial applications has been a tough challenge, but this is now becoming the market reference.”
Electronic passports and many national electronic identity projects rely on contactless technology. Countries are starting to deploy systems that can read the chips and make sure the photo stored in the chip matches the individual at the border crossing or other service delivery point.
These and other applications that store biometrics on the chip are appearing in greater numbers, and present a new challenge compared to the tried and true payment and transit applications that have been around for years.
These chips require large memory for biometric and image storage as well as faster data transfer for presentment and comparison. And it is the demands of these newer applications that have driven the industry to produce chips that are faster and have larger memory, Borchert says.
Chip memory is split between two functions: one is for applications and operating systems while the other is for storage. Newer card applications require more memory for both of these areas, says Borchert.
Today, contactless smart cards used for identity applications have between 500 and 800-kilobytes of memory, split between the two functions. Just a few years ago, typical chips maxed out at 128-kilobytes of user memory and up to 400-kilobytes of read-only memory for applications and operating system code.
The speed of these chips has improved tremendously in the past few years. Borchert says that some chips are four times faster than they were a few years ago, and are able to transfer 180-kilobits per second.