Choosing a contactless card format can be a tough decision for a campus. It sort of is like choosing a pair of shoes or that perfect sweater for every person on campus; you need to make sure it fits, does the job, and is within your budget. Once you make your choice, chances are you are not going to want to change the contactless card in use unless really necessary, due to cost and logistics of re-carding the campus. So let’s review the most often seen types of contactless cards available that can assist in the decision-making process.
Proximity cards or Prox are one of the most often seen forms of contactless card technology, since they have been around the longest. Many people use the term Prox card to refer to any type of contactless cards however, and in my opinion, that can get very confusing since there are a number of different contactless card formats. Generally when most use the term Prox card, they are referring to a 125kHz card that was offered through HID.
Prox cards are still in use in many locations and are widespread, however, Prox cards generally do not have as a high a degree of security as newer contactless smartcards. Prox cards transmit the encoded account number openly to the reader, with the card data being sent directly to an access control panel or other terminal in use.
Contactless smartcards differ quite a bit from the Prox card in the way they function behind the scenes, although they provide a similar cardholder experience where you present the card to a reader, it beeps, and a light may change color to indicate access pass or fail. Contactless smartcards contain an embedded microprocessor chip, which allows for enhanced security through encryption and also can allow for the programming of additional applications to the chip.
With a contactless smartcard, when the card is presented to the reader there is an authentication process, or handshake if you will, between the card and reader. The reader asks the card for an encrypted key, like a secret password. If the key matches what is needed by the reader then the transaction is allowed to proceed.
Contactless smartcards read/write from the chip at 13.5 MHz as opposed to 125kHz that a Prox card uses. Additionally they adhere to an ISO 14443 or ISO 15693 standard. The difference between these two ISO standards is that 14443 operates at a 106K Baud data transfer speed and 15693 operates at a 26K Baud data transfer speed. This means that ISO 14443 cards operate at a much faster read rate than 15693, however, 15693 have a greater read range.
In our travels, the most popular contactless smartcards we see are iClass and Mifare. iClass is a contactless smartcard provided by HID which utilizes ISO 15693. We see the biggest use of iClass in the access arena due to its high level of security, with card data protected by triple DES encryption. If using iClass, I would recommend investigating the Corporate 1000 program that allows HID to provide a 35-bit format developed specifically for each end user customer. The newer iClass SE platform uses multi-layered security with a secure identity object.
Mifare is an alternative contactless smartcard using ISO 14443. Mifare is used worldwide for access control, cashless vending, financial payment, and public transportation applications. The Mifare Application Directory allows for flexible use of the card with programming of additional applications to the chip. Mifare is available in a couple of different flavors, such as Mifare Classic that allows for multiapplication use and DESFire EV1. DESFire EV1 provides additional security to the card while meeting the needs for fast and highly secure data transmission in a standard platform. The Allegion aptiQ product line is built upon Mifare DESFire EV1.
Choosing the contactless card which will best meet your needs is a decision that should be made after research and weighing the options available to you. The good thing is there are a lot of experts in the field who can help walk you through the process and work with you to choose the best format for your specific needs. Work with your system provider and speak to other campuses that have made the decision to implement contactless cards to see what went into their decision-making process.