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Smart Card Standards Unlock Interoperability Obstacles for More Widespread Use

New York, Apr 24, 2003

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently announced its plans to release an updated version of its interoperability specifications for government smart cards. Interoperability is a critical issue in smart card technology; due to different vendors, software and card readers, disparate agencies have faced obstacles in linking different brands of card systems. NIST published an updated version of its government-wide smart card interoperability specifications (GSC-IS) in June of 2002, and plans to update them again later this year as GSC-IS version 2.1. The newest specifications will align with other international smart card standards, such as those being developed by the European Union's Global Interoperability Framework (GIF).

A smart card is a credit-card sized plastic card with an embedded computer chip. The chip can either be a microprocessor with internal memory or a memory chip with non-programmable logic. The chip connection occurs via direct physical contact or remotely via a contactless electromagnetic interface.

The Department of Defense has led the way in the use of Common Access Cards (CAC), or smart cards, since it applied the technology in 1999 for identification, logical network access, physical access to buildings and other types of authentication. The widespread implementation of smart card technology by the DoD has opened the way for smart-card use throughout government.

According to the Smart Card Alliance -- a multi-industry association working to accelerate the widespread acceptance of multiple application smart card technology – interoperability issues and the lack of smart card reader infrastructure has slowed the commercial acceptance of smart cards as the preferred method to securely access digital networks. While great progress has been made in the last decade, it is only recently that they are becoming standard equipment on a number of platforms.

In the private sector, Europay, MasterCard and Visa worked jointly over the last few years to develop specifications that define a set of requirements to ensure interoperability between chip cards and terminals on a global basis, regardless of the manufacturer, the financial institution, or where the card is used. EMVCo, LLC, was formed in February 1999 by the three financial groups to manage, maintain and enhance the EMV™ Integrated Circuit Card Specifications for Payment Systems. The primary role of the organization is standards maintenance that ensures interoperability and acceptance of payment system integrated circuit cards on a worldwide basis.

The EMV Specifications are built upon the existing International Organization for Standardization/International Electrotechnical Commission standards for Integrated Circuit Cards with Contacts (ISO/IEC 7816 series) developed by ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 17, Cards and Personal Identification.

Through payment systems representatives, EMVCo promotes and endeavors to harmonize the standardization work by actively contributing to the ISO/IEC standards drafting process in order to ensure full compatibility between these standards and the derived EMV specifications. The EMVCo Specifications contain a selection of options taken from the ISO/IEC 7816 standards that are relevant for the financial sector.

With the DoD's success, government officials would like to see more widespread use of smart cards, but a lack of interoperability has been the largest barrier to sweeping adoption, according to Jim Dray, principal scientist for NIST's smart-card program. NIST and the General Services Administration have joined forces to establish and lead the Government Smart Card program in conjunction with other federal agencies and industry partners. The primary goal of the Government Smart Card program is to build a framework for smart card interoperability, enabling broad adoption of this critical technology by the public and private sectors.

According to NIST, the updated government smart card specifications will address the incorporation of biometrics, and "contactless" cards, which can be read from a distance through radio frequency communications. "Version 2.1 will be the federal government's bridge to the formal standards world," Dray said, adding that the Interoperability Advisory Board was recently restructured to focus less on contracting issues, and more on "what it really takes to get government-wide deployment of smart-card technologies."

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