How do smart cards enhance security?
February 17, 2006
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A lot of laptop brochures hype smart card readers as a security feature. What's a smart card, and how does it help with security?
Smart cards look just like credit cards but contain a semiconductor chip with a small amount of memory or a microprocessor. Unlike the magnetic strip you find on most credit cards, which can be swiped and accessed with some basic equipment, a smart card's chip can act as a gatekeeper by requiring a PIN to access information on the card.
To access data on a smart card-secured laptop, you need to insert your assigned smart card in the laptop's reader and enter the correct PIN. The computer and the smart card communicate with and authenticate each other--you can't log on with just the PIN or just the smart card. This two-factor authentication process provides a degree of security beyond that of a single (easily crackable
) password and is used by companies that want to protect the data on employees' laptops and provide secure network access to remote workers.
Smart cards can double as printed photo ID badges and cost from $1 to about $20 each, depending on the feature set you choose and the volume you purchase.