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User authentication options: Using two factor authentication for security

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How do smart cards work?

A smart card looks like a credit card but contains a small microcontroller attached to an electrically erasable, programmable read-only

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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.

This was first published in August 2006

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