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Radio Frequency Identification and Noncontact Smart Cards

Ken , University of Tokyo

Pages: pp. 4-6

In the past 10 years, the Internet has become an indispensable infrastructure for much of the world. The high availability and low cost of hardware—such as PCs, servers, modems, routers, and switches—to access the Internet make these devices accessible to many. The Internet now serves as a useful tool in both our business and personal lives.

The growth of ubiquitous and pervasive computing is likely to have an impact of a similar magnitude as that of the Internet. Computers embedded in everyday objects will communicate and cooperate with each other to enhance the services of formerly stand-alone single devices. However, science and society must overcome many technological and social obstacles for this vision to become a reality. One such obstacle is the development of a widely available and affordable human-machine interface technology for embedded computers. Having such an interface will in turn facilitate societal acceptance.

One possible human-machine interface technology is to equip devices with computer vision that can recognize users and/or other devices. Unfortunately, even with today's computer processing power, computer vision is not always reliable. However, adding electronic identification or tags to real-world people or objects is an inexpensive alternative to computer vision. These tags can incorporate an authentication function to provide a reliable component for future human-machine interfaces.

This special issue covers two near-term technologies to help implement identification tags with authentication functionality: radio frequency identification (RFID) and noncontact smart cards. Together, these technologies will help make ubiquitous and pervasive computing practical.


RFID IC chips embedded in objects or attached to the surface of large objects communicate with computers via radio links to identify the objects. RFID technology's radio link function is not much different from that of many types of noncontact smart cards. Many RFID chips permit noncontact read out of their internal data via a reader/writer. The reader/writer emits a radio wave to induce a microcurrent that powers RFID chips within a certain vicinity. RFID chips come in many shapes—they can be coin-, stick-, label-, or capsule-like—to make them easily attachable to particular objects.

RFID chip applications are diverse. At airports, RFID chips attached to luggage aid tracking. For governments, these chips provide home garbage data that lets cities charge for garbage processing based on weight. In a factory, they help identify tools, or in a museum, exhibit specimens. For business or research, pets and domesticated and wild animals have been tagged. In marathon competitions, officials track runners using RFID chips in the runners' armbands. At ski grounds, this technology provides lift passes. For delivery or service vans, an RFID chip in the driver's armband can signal a cargo bay lock to open automatically. Even if the driver is holding something with both hands and therefore can't handle a key, the chip's presence automatically unlocks the door. Futuristic applications include pills in which RFID chips warn of side effects and interactions with other drugs, and construction material in which RFID chips tell workers whether they can burn a certain material to dispose of it when a building is torn down. RFID chips could also communicate the stress or structural fatigue of materials based on sensor data.

RFID chips and smart cards offer endless application possibilities. However, once these devices become a part of the social infrastructure, the cost of security breaches will be very large, so society will need a strong security mechanism for these systems. In a short article in this issue, "The eTRON Wide-Area Distributed-System Architecture for E-Commerce," Noboru Koshizuka and myself discuss these topics by introducing the eTRON (Entity TRON) research project, which we are conducting to solve these security problems.


A typical smart card consists of a processor and memory. Smart cards usually have low power consumption and a tamper-proof design. The card device's main function is authentication—through recording and encrypting data—of the card itself or of the individual who owns the card.

Smart cards offer endless application possibilities. For financial services, smart cards are appropriate as bank, credit, and debit cards. It's difficult to conceive of electronic money without the use of smart cards. In the future, smart cards will replace government-issued identifications such as driver's licenses and passports. Transportation systems now use smart cards for tickets, commuter passes, highway tollbooth tokens, and parking payments. For communication, smart cards serve as prepaid telephone cards, subscriber identity module (SIM) cards for mobile phones, and inside-reception modules for pay-per-view satellite television. Mobile phones could someday serve as electronic wallets through the use of smart cards. The communication application field probably has the largest number of smart cards in real use already.

For health care systems, smart cards can store patient history and identification to ease hospital admittance. Educational organizations and businesses could use smart cards as identification, keys for unlocking rooms and facilities, and as a way to track staff members' locations inside buildings. The entertainment industry could use smart cards for entry tokens and ride passes at amusement parks; the cards could record visit records to offer better customer management.

According to Dataquest, the number of shipped smart cards in 2000 was 628 million—a 45 percent increase over the previous year. SIM card use in mobile phones accounted for most of this rise. The number shipped should again increase sharply once noncontact cards—those that a reader device can sense at a distance—become less expensive and more widely used for tickets and identification. Realizing this cost reduction will require a low-power-consumption card that can run on the tiny amount of current induced by radio waves emitted by noncontact card readers.


In this issue, authors from one of the largest suppliers of smart cards, France's Gemplus, contributed two articles. "Hardware and Software Symbiosis Helps Smart Card Evolution" provides an overview of the current state of the smart card. "Supplemental Cryptographic Hardware for Smart Cards" discusses the necessary hardware for next generation smart cards.

EM Microelectronic Marin SA of Switzerland has contributed an article about the EasyRide system trial in which noncontact smart cards act as tickets for public transportation, such as trains and buses. "EasyRide: Active Transponders for a Fare Collection System" discusses the project's access control system.

Hitachi contributed "An Ultra Small Individual Recognition Security Chip" about the world's smallest RFID chip with an area of 0.4 mm 2.

"Radio-Frequency Identification and the Electronic Product Code," describes the efforts at the MIT Auto-ID Center to tag all goods in a distribution channel with inexpensive RFID chips.


I hope that this issue directs the readers' attention to the application of RFID chips and smart cards as an important part of society's future infrastructure.

About the Authors

Ken Sakamura, IEEE Micro's editor-in-chief, is a professor in the Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies at the University of Tokyo. He is currently constructing the Digital Museum, which uses various computer technologies. His primary interests lie in computer architecture and digital museums as well as real-time processing and computer-augmented environments. He initiated the TRON project in 1984 to help build computers in the 1990s and beyond. Under his leadership, over 100 manufacturers participate in the project. Since he is also interested in how computer use will change society in the 21st century, his design activities extend to electronic appliances, furniture, houses, buildings, and urban planning. Sakamura received a BS, an ME, and a PhD in electrical engineering from Keio University in Yokohama. He is a senior member of the IEEE and a member of the ACM.
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