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Two-factor authentication and smart cards

An introduction to smart cards including how they work, their pros and cons, and expert advice on if and when to deploy them.

How they work

A smart card looks like a credit card but contains a small microcontroller attached to an electrically erasable, programmable read-only memory chip. Smart card chip connection is via direct physical contact with a smart card reader, which can be attached to a PC. New generation smart cards also have a math coprocessor integrated with the microcontroller chip that can quickly perform complex encryption routines.

Pros and cons

Price has been a big barrier to the wide deployment of smart cards. When they were first introduced, they cost about $100 each plus the reader and software. While their prices have come down, smart cards use the same chips as USB tokens and consequently have identical functionality. USB tokens, however, are far more convenient to carry and less prone to breakage when carried in a trouser pocket; and the reader is built onto every PC.

What to do

Companies wanting multifunctional ID cards for both physical and network access might consider smart cards. Some vendors offer smart cards that can be used as a proximity badge for building access and also for logical access. Smart cards may become more widespread as federal agencies comply with HSPD 12.

Corporations have long wished for a biometrically-authenticated card that provides a user with both physical and logical access. HID offers such a card, but the cost makes the solution prohibitively expensive for all but the most security-conscious environments.

Two-factor authentication options

  Smart cards
  Safe mode: Danger zone

Tom Bowers

About the author
Tom Bowers is the Security Director of Net4NZIX, an independent think tank and industry analyst group, as well as a technical editor for
Information Security magazine. Bowers, who holds the CISSP, PMP and Certified Ethical Hacker certifications, is a well known expert on the topics of data leakage prevention, global enterprise information security architecture and ethical hacking. He is also the president of the Philadelphia chapter of Infragard, the second largest chapter in the country with more than 600 members.

This article originally appeared in Information Security magazine.

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