It’s All Academic: Improving Credit Card Security

Written February 7th, 2014 by Charles

Seal_of_the_Ohio_State_UniversityMost everyone probably remembers the news that came out during the Christmas shopping season about the massive data breach at Target that resulted in the theft of credit card data of hundreds of thousands of people.  This data breach resulted in renewed calls to do something to make credit cards and the information they contain more secure.  This is a major, far reaching problem that potentially impacts everyone in the US and beyond but fortunately researchers in the Ohio State Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering are on the case.

The major problem with credit cards in the United States is that the vast majority of them rely on magnetic strips to store the credit card data.  While this is an easy means of storing and transmitting the data to the terminal at the checkout, all you have to do is swipe your card, it isn’t very secure as the data on the magnetic strip is static and unencrypted.  All a thief needs is a means to get the data that the terminal reads in and they have everything they need to use your credit card. 

The need to find a more secure means of storing data on a credit card has been known for a while and most of the rest of the world has taken steps in this direction by moving to a ‘chip and pin’ system.  Instead of storing the credit card data on a magnetic strip, the data is stored on a silicon chip that is on the credit card.  To make a purchase you insert the card into the terminal which reads the encrypted data that is stored on the chip, you then enter a pin number in the terminal’s key pad to authorize and complete the transaction.  Because the ‘chip and pin’ system allows for the credit card data to be encrypted, even if thieves steal the information from the terminal, the information is useless to them unless they have the means to break the encryption which is a much more difficult and resource intensive task.

Current chip and pin cards used in many places around the world rely on expensive silicon chips.

Current chip and pin cards used in many places around the world rely on expensive silicon chips.

So where do the OSU researchers come into this?  It seems like we have a solution, just go to a ‘chip and pin’ system like most of the rest of the world does and the problem is solved, right?  Well it isn’t so simple; silicon chips, such as the ones used in current ‘chip and pin’ systems, are expensive and are fragile, not exactly a good thing for something you carry around in your wallet.  The costs of converting to a ‘chip and pin’ system are already rather high as retailers need to replace their current card readers with new ones.  Add to that fairly expensive silicon chips and you get a pretty high financial burden to the whole switching process.

Fortunately a team of Ohio State researchers from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering led by Professor Paul Berger have an idea to reduce the cost of ‘chip and pin’ cards.  Professor Berger’s team has been working on a method to print plastic circuits, instead of silicon ones, on credit cards.  The cards would also be equipped with micro-antennae that could essentially use radio frequencies from a payment terminal to power the chip to transmit the information.   These plastic chips would have the advantage of being cheaper and more durable than the silicon chips currently in use, making a widespread conversion to ‘chip and pin’ cards much easier and cheaper.  They also have the potential to eliminate the need to insert the card into the reader, instead you would just have to get it close enough for the data to be transmitted.  Since the data on the chips would be encrypted and a pin number needed to complete the transaction, the danger of getting card data getting stolen would be as low as in the current ‘chip and pin’ systems.

As detailed in an article in Columbus Business First, Professor Berger and his team have done wonderful work in the past with standard silicon chips, reducing the energy needed to run them in half.  Now thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation, he has teamed up with researchers from Finland to implement this new plastic chip technology.  Professor Berger has also spun off a company, QuTel Inc which he hopes to use to license his plastic chips to manufacturers.

The work done by Professor Berger and his team is very exciting and is another example of how researchers at Ohio State are working to solve current problems in society.  In the process OSU students are getting valuable training and research experience in cutting edge technologies that will make them extremely attractive to future employers in both academia and industry.

1 Comment

  1. KenNo Gravatar
    February 8th, 2014 at 10:53 am

    Interesting topic, Charles, thanks for the update. This is some pretty exciting research… and applicable, too.


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