One card fits all

Motorola wants to replace all of the credit cards you are carrying with a single piece of plastic embedded with a microprocessor. Cliff Joseph reports
Motorola has set up a new division to develop the next generation of "combination" smart cards, which can be used to store large amounts of personal, medical and financial information about their users.

Cash cards and credit cards are the best known types of smart card currently in use. Supermarket loyalty cards and rail tickets also have some degree of smartness, as they can tell the issuers what you've bought and where you've been. In fact, just about every card in your wallet with one of those brown magnetic strips on it is a form of smart card.

Motorola's plan, though, is to develop a single card that will combine all these features and more. Instead of using magnetic strips to store information, the new card will contain miniature microprocessors to provide as much as 100 kilobytes of memory, and processing power equal to that of early home computers such as the Sinclair Spectrum.

This extra processing power means that the card can be programmed to perform a number of different tasks. Card holders will have their own swipe machines at home that will allow them to programme information into the card as required. Instead of having a wallet full of plastic cards, you could programme one combination card to act as a credit card, train pass, supermarket loyalty card, and whatever else you want it to do.

These new cards will also be "contactless". Instead of being passed through a swipe machine to make a transaction, the cards will use radio signals to communicate information across a distance of several feet.

"We believe the market is exploding," said Mark Davies, vice-president of Motorola's new Smartcard Systems division. "By 2001 there could be more smart cards in use than telephones."

That may be typical computer industry hyperbole, but there's no doubt that the use of smart cards is growing rapidly. In 1995 there were 540 million smart cards in use world-wide, and Davies estimates that this could rise to more than 3 billion by 2001.

The idea of storing so much personal information on a piece of plastic obviously raises concern about security, but Motorola has a hi-tech solution to this. "Biometrics will be an important security feature," Davies says. Biometrics uses electronic systems to recognise personal features such as thumb prints, voice patterns and even retina recognition. Motorola is investigating all three options, though it has made no final decisions on how to implement the systems.

Inevitably, these cards also raise issues of civil liberty and privacy. Davies argues that "ultimately it will be the individual who determines the boundaries of the smart card". He said he believes that using swipe machines in the home will allow users to control what information goes on to the card.

However, this assumes that the card holder will be the only person to decide what goes on to the card. The Spanish government is about to issue 35 million smart cards that will store citizens' social security numbers and details of any welfare benefits they receive. Combination cards would also be the ideal solution for politicians in this country who want to introduce compulsory ID cards.

Initial uses of the cards are likely to be much less controversial, though. The first of the new card systems is due for release at the end of this year, and Motorola's main discussions so far have been with banks and municipal transport companies in the US.

Personally, I'd be happy to swap the nine cards in my wallet for a single combination card. I'm just worried that I might try to programme my train pass into it, and find I'd ordered 500 cans of baked beans from Sainsbury's instead.