vs Contactless Smart Cards
By Parul Oswal, Senior Research Analyst, RFID,
and Michelle Foong,
Senior Research Analyst, Smart Cards, Industrial
Technologies Frost & Sullivan Asia Pacific.
The debate between RFID and smart cards technology is
an ongoing one. There is no clear definition that describes
RFID and smart cards, and at times these two terms are
used interchangeably, due to lack of awareness, resulting
in confusion between the differences. Confusion is especially
strong between contactless smart cards and RFID. The
key issue that has given rise to this debate is the
contact less interface and that too an RF (radio frequency)
one. Both contactless smart cards and RFID use radio
frequencies for communicating between the card and reader.
The applications for which RF is used can be different
for RFID and smartcards. RFID is mainly meant for applications
within the supply chain, for track and trace. Contactless
smart cards on the other hand are mainly meant for payments/banking,
mass transit, government and ID, and access control.
This article aims at clearing the confusion between
the two technology definitions. The following chart
depicts the various applications of contact less smart
cards and RFID, along with their level of information
and smart cards both can be used in transit applications
and most of the time they are used together to provide
increased convenience to end users. An example of
this would be the "Touch n go" cards in Malaysia
used on toll ways. The Touch n Go card is a contactless
smart card, but this card can be purchased with
an additional RFID transponder (where the smart
card will be inserted) so that the toll booth reader
can read the cards from a greater distance than
the 10cm limit restricted by smart card standards.
Without the additional RFID transponder, the contactless
Touch n Go smart cards can still be used, which
means that the driver need to screen down their
windshield to tap the card on the reader, instead
of just driving through while the RFID transponder
will be detected by the reader above the toll booths
at a greater distance.
Radio Frequency Identification
RFID is a wireless automatic identification and
data capture (AIDC) technology.
It includes tags, Antenna or coil Electronics programmed
with unique information, reader and software. The
RFID ecosystem comprises of players offering a wide
range of products and services. The Integrated circuits
group comprises of IC designers, antenna and IC
manufacturers. These ICs are used in the development
of RFID hardware equipments which comprises of tags
(that can be active or passive), in addition to
readers and printers.
The software and middleware in the equipment is
integrated with the back-end systems by the system
integrators who also act as the distributors and
value added resellers. In addition, there are several
companies that provide training and consulting services.
Some companies focus on one key aspect while others
provide services across the value chain.
RFID technology operates at four different frequencies
that have different characteristics. The table below
lists the various RFID frequencies, with their capabilities
key RFID standards used are:
15693 is making an important impact in the contact
less market with its tracking function capability
within a contact less application and its convenience
through increased proximity distance and hands-free
expands the communication range for vicinity
operations to around 1.5m. In proximity operations,
ISO 15693 doubles the communication distance
of ISO 14443.
18000 was developed, originally, for electronic
identification applications. There are now many
variations within the ISO 8000 standard, from
125 KHz to several GHz, including ISO 15693
for 13.56 MHz.
Contactless Smart Cards are cards that contain an
IC (integrated chip) that complies with ISO 14443
(mostly type A) or better known as Mifare. ISO 14443
sets communication standards and transmission protocols
between card and reader to create interoperability
for contactless smart card products. Read/write
range of devices is usually up to 4 inches/10cm.
(Note: this figure is generally accepted but it
is not stated in the standard.) End users these
days often require full compatibility in both the
readers and in the cards. Cards are intended to
communicate with the reader antenna at a frequency
of 13.56 MHz. Two main communication protocols are
supported under the ISO 14443 standard series –
Type A (MiFare),Type B and Type C (Sony -FeliCa
IC-mostly in Japan). ISO 14443A is the most widely
used contactless smart card standard in the world,
mainly for transport applications.
In this technology, readers are sometimes technically
referred to as Proximity Coupling Device (PCD) and
cards sometimes called Proximity Integrated Circuit
Cards or (PICCs). The confusion between RFID and
contactless smart card arises when the terminology
varies across the industry where the word ‘proximity
card’ sometimes refers to both contactless smart
card and proximity cards with no multi-application
capability, while ‘vicinity cards’ are sometimes
used to refer to the proximity cards mentioned in
Contactless smart cards have been particularly popular
in recent years because of its security and multi-application
aspect. This means that one card can be utilized
across transit, payment and access (combined into
one card). Transit (sometimes combined with payment)
is currently the most popular application using
contactless smart cards. The key applications aside
from transit and door access are currently the growth
areas such as government ID, payment/banking, logical
access control and e-passport (which is technically
not a card, but uses the same contactless IC chip).
Contactless smart cards are generally used for applications
like these, where a higher level of security and
privacy is necessary to protect the information
stored by the card.
RFID vs Smart Cards
Some of the key differences between RFID and
smart cards is that where RFID can read up to longer
read distances, contactless smart cards have the
capability to read up to 4 inches only. RFID can
operate at 125 KHz,13.56 MHz, 850-950 MHz and 2.4-
5.8 GHz, with memory up to 2 KB.
Contactless smart cards on the other hand operate
at a frequency of 13.56 MHz, with higher memory
capacity of typically 8K to 64K. The higher security
capabilities and memory capacity of smart cards
renders them suitable for applications such as e-passports,
payment cards, and identification. Such applications
are also better positioned to absorb the higher
cost of smartcards as compared to passive RFID tags.
Passive RFID is primarily touted for track and trace
applications especially within supply chains. As
a general rule, while RFID is used in applications
that identify and track objects, contactless smart
cards are used in applications that identify objects/persons
as well store financial/personal information.
There are certain limitations of the RFID technology,
due to which smart cards are considered more secure.
Firstly, in case of RFID there are certain privacy
issues. Since it is an identification technology
and that too contactless, there are chances that
a nearby reader can read the tag and hence come
to know the details of the products, without the
holder’s knowledge. Whereas in the case of smart
cards the information can be encrypted so that only
an authorized reader can access the information.
One of the sources of confusion arising between
the two technologies occur because proximity cards
(which are RFID cards using 13.56 MHz) and contactless
smart cards are both applicable in physical access
control. Both cards use 13.56 MHz and can be used
for door access to buildings and restricted areas,
but proximity cards can allow a read distance of
up to 1.5 meters, while contactless smart cards
have a read limit of 10 centimeters.
To conclude we discuss the standards that are most
widely accepted. Proximity - ISO 15693 is a standard
for ‘vicinity’ or proximity cards, which can be
read from a greater distance as compared to contactless
smart cards. This standard was create to allow a
maximum read distance of 1-1.5 metre. An example
of this being the Radio Identification tags (RFID)
used to collect toll electronically these days.
As the vicinity cards have to operate at a greater
distance, the necessary magnetic field is less (0.15
to 5 A/m) than that for a proximity card (1,5 to
7,5 A/m). Contactless Smart Cards-The majority of
contactless smart cards used in access control comply
with ISO 14443 (mostly type A). Proximity cards
on the other hand, often have longer read distance
than 10cm, hence complying with ISO 15693 instead.
However, there are some proximity card/readers that
comply with both standards 14443 and 15693 for the
purpose of more secure cards that can communicate
at a distance further 4 inches.
The following table highlights certain differences
between RFID and Smart card, from the technology
point of view:
Given that both technologies uses contact less interface,
RFIDs and smart cards are expected to compete on
security grounds. However, this possibility is unlikely
for a long time, because the current market potential
for both the technologies in their respective application
segments is immense.
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