This week we will take a look at an item ubiquitous to all of us: credit cards. Not sure if you noticed, but the old credit card that you used to swipe at the store is slowly being replaced by Smart Cards that you instead insert in the payment machine. Perhaps Smart Cards will be obsolete before taking over if the electronic wallets of Apple, Google, PayPal, and others take off fast enough. Since the adoption rate of electronic payment system (e.g. Apple Watch) is reasonably slow, the Smart Card has a fighting chance. After all, the Smart Card Alliance estimates 600 million Smart Cards will be in use by the end of 2015 in the US alone.
The “smarts” in the Smart Card come from the tiny microchip embedded in the card, as you can see on the left top corner of the following image. As usual, we give you the photo of the card overlaid with the x-ray of the card.
Smart Card x-ray image and photo
So why bother putting a tiny microchip in your credit card? Other than being super cool to we geeks out there, this microchip was designed to reduce the ability of criminals to steal your credit card. How? Simple: the old credit card has a magnetic strip with all your data (remember old cassette tapes – similar technology). Well, to copy or clone your credit card all the criminal needs to do is to read the data in the magnetic strip and record it into a blank card. Voila, your card has now a twin sister!
To make criminals’ life harder, the microchip in the Smart Card generates a new code each time you use it. Once used, the code is no longer valid. This code is specially generated so that the credit card companies know it’s your card being used. It’s useless for the thief to steal the code, since it changes with every use. Pretty cool, right?! Here are more details of the chip itself, and the little wires that connect the chip to the pads on the credit card. These are the golden looking areas on the corner of the card. They are used to complete the electrical contact between the payment machine at the cashier and the microchip inside the card.
X-Ray image of microchip inside Smart Card
X-Ray image of wirebond connecting parts of the Smart Card to microchip pads
I’m sure you won’t see your credit cards the same way again. And please use your card responsibly!