Government ID Card Smart Card Applications
To be successful, a Government smart card ID program needs to have the right combination of components, carefully selected and qualified to ensure that the ID cards will meet the extended lifespan requirements of Government ID cards. It is important that they will not have to be reissued before their expected life time is over.

Smart Card Types

Contact: Contact smart cards have a metallic chip contact pad embedded on the surface of the plastic card and they must be inserted into a smart card reader and make a direct connection for the card data to be transferred and read. Repeated insertions into an ID card reader throughout a card’s lifetime cause significant wear and tear on the contact pad and ID card surface, having the greatest effect on the life expectancy of contact ID cards. Another significant factor affecting contact smart card lifespan is the possible separation of the contact pad from the card body, which can result from persistent bending or flexing of the ID card. A five-year life has been widely achieved for contact smart cards in the financial card market, however, recent advances in ID card body materials and mechanical chip embedding technologies have now made a 10 year lifespan for contact cards realistic.

Contactless: Contactless smart cards have no contact pad and use instead radio waves to communicate with ID card readers from a distance. The connection is achieved through electromagnetic induction between an antenna in the card reader and another embedded between the layers of the card body. Contactless smart card durability is longer than that of contact smart cards, because they don’t require physical contact with an ID card reader. An important factor that has a significant influence on contactless card durability is the quality of the bond between the embedded antenna and chip, because this connection can break if the bond is weak and the ID card subjected to excessive bending and flexing. The quality of the bond between the ID card layers containing the chip and antenna is also important in preventing separation of these layers. A life-span of 10 years or more with contactless cards is limited, since the technologies involved have been developed more recently. However, contactless cards are currently ranked as the most durable of the various ID card types by a majority of the smart card industry, with a 10-year life considered feasible.

Dual Interface: Dual interface smart cards have both contact and contactless connections to a single chip, within the same ID card, and exhibit the benefits and weaknesses of both technologies. Dual interface smart cards are a more recent development. A majority of smart card industry organizations believe that a 5-year life is certainly feasible with dual smart cards; however, it may be too early to guarantee a 10 year life at present. These views are largely based on internal test results and knowledge of the manufacturing processes. One advantage of dual interface smart cards is that they may retain (limited) functionality even when one of their interfaces fails. One of the primary drivers for using dual interface smart cards is to support the migration from a legacy contact smart card infrastructure to an updated contactless solution. Dual interface smart cards will allow a gradual transition from contact to contactless over a number of years.

Hybrid: Hybrid smart cards have two chips, one is connected via a contact interface and the other connected via a contactless interface. They are essentially two smart cards in a single ID card body, with no communication between the two chips. Hybrid smart cards are widely considered to be the least durable of the main smart card types, with suggestions that dual interface ID cards are a better option. A majority of the smart card industry supports the view that 5-year durability for hybrid ID cards may be feasible, but that a 10-year lifespan is unlikely.

Main Drivers Influencing Selection of Smart Card Type:

Card Durability: The cost of ID card replacement at the scale of an entire country’s population can represent one of the largest cost elements of a National ID card program, especially if renewal and re-issuance involves face-to-face interviews and data cross-referencing. To re-issue 50 million eID smart cards every 5 or 7 years, can be vastly more expensive than a 10-year renewal cycle. So careful evaluation of smart ID card durability factors can help to ensure a minimum guaranteed ID card lifespan, significantly increasing financial benefits.

Cost and Availability of ID Card Reader Infrastructure: It is generally accepted that contact ID card readers cost less than contactless readers, but the maintenance and service costs tend to be higher for contact ID card readers than for contactless, because contactless readers have no moving parts. New ID card security projects can make use of previously installed reader infrastructures, which are often contact-based because contactless technologies are newer. A good example of this might be the inclusion of a contact interface in a national e-ID card project, which could make use of the existing installed base of EMV® contact readers (in banks, shops and supermarkets) for ID card verification using chip and PIN.

Ease and Speed of Use: Ease or speed of use of a smart card may prove to be the most significant factor influencing choice of smart card type. If the ID card is intended to be used at a work-desk or counter, then speed of use is not as relevant and a contact smart card may be the best solution. However, if the ID card is to be used for transportation or access control, where speed of flow through a check-point is more important, then a contactless smart card would be the better choice.

Security: While it used to be true that a contact interface was generally accepted to be more secure than a contactless interface, cryptographic communications developments have gone a long way to establish new security standards for contactless smart cards. In order to counter concerns that information could be covertly read or “sniffed” from a contactless smart card without the owner’s knowledge or consent, many contactless smart card solutions employ a secondary authentication that enables chip access (e.g. MRZ read for ICAO). Often it is the value of transactions or cost to the individual of a compromised ID card that will determine the choice of smart card type. For example, with transport cards the benefits of speed and ease of use outweighs the financial risk represented by the small transaction values involved.

Comparisons of Main ID Card Body Materials:

PVC: PVC is the least expensive of the main ID card body materials. It is used for both contact and contactless ID cards, but generally has a shorter life expectancy than other ID card body materials, due to a lower resistance to heat, UV and bending stress, which can cause premature de-lamination and ID card module separation. PVC is generally used for financial cards with a life expectancy of 3-5 years. The main durability issues of PVC include, surface wear (scratching and print erosion), de-lamination where finishing layers begin to separate, effects of physical stress (flexing and twisting) on the ID card body, chemical damage (from petrol, nail varnish, cooking oil, etc.), UV light causing print finish deterioration and weaknesses caused by certain personalization features (embossing, laser engraving).

PC: PC (polycarbonate) is a more rigid ID card body material which has a much higher resistance to damage from heat, flexing and UV light. However, PC can have a tendency of brittleness which can be adversely affected by frequent automated handling, causing shatter cracks. It is also less resistant to caustic solutions and certain solvents.

PET: PET (polyester), PETF and PETG are special materials that have been developed to enhance specific strengths or reduce certain weaknesses in ID cards. These derivative materials are often combined with specialty ID card body substrates to significantly enhance the physical durability of ID cards for specific applications. In particular to reduce the incidence of antenna connection breaks and contact plate separation caused by flexing and bending of an ID card body. For example, PETF (polyester film) is a PET derivative that has very high thermal stability, mechanical strength and chemical inertness. PETF has one-third the tensile strength of steel and can withstand temperatures of up to 200° C, and has high resistance to solvent. Other strong combinations include PET/PETG and PEC as well as combinations of hard materials (like PET and PC) with soft materials like TPE/TPU. The choice of ID card body material will influence which options for ID card printing and finishing are available, affecting the durability of the finished ID card product.

Physical and Mechanical Factors Affecting ID Card Durability:

Most smart card solutions feature personalized ID card printing of features such as photos, text, logos, bar codes and other graphic elements. Personalized plastic ID cards are regularly exposed to a variety of potentially destructive elements that can degrade printed images, but the smart card industry offers a full range of options that can provide effective protection against these threats.

Manufacturing Process Smart card durability can be strongly influenced by the card manufacturing process. In particular, the method used to bond contact chips into the ID card body recess, and the way the contact plate is attached to the chip module are important factors. Poor manufacture quality can result in the separation of these components from the ID card body, if an ID card is subjected to flexing by the user or mechanical reading equipment. In contactless ID cards, card durability is influenced by how well the antenna is bonded into the card, the strength of the connection to the chip and the rigidity of the ID card body’s material, as flexing can cause the chip/antenna connections to break.

Chemical Attack: The plasticizers used to construct vinyl pouches found in most wallets, skin oils, certain cosmetics, petrol and leather treatment chemicals can penetrate a smart card’s surface and extract the dyes used to print digital ID camera photos and other images. The application of a high quality durable ID card overlaminate can provide strong protection against most forms of chemical damage such as those listed above.

Heat: Heat (for example: the sunlight on an ID card left in a car window) can cause significant damage to a smart card, warping and distorting its materials. PVC in particular can suffer heat damage at temperatures of around 60° C while Polycarbonate and PET can withstand temperatures over 120° C.

Abrasions: Repeated passing of ID cards through a swipe ID card reader can remove features from a plastic ID card, especially if the card has no topcoat or overlay protecting its printed images. Smart cards with applied relief features such as embossing, indenting and tactile printing are more sensitive to abrasion and wear.

Moisture: Humidity, perspiration and other moisture can attack and weaken adhesion of poor quality ID card topcoats and overlaminates, causing premature card failures. The use of high durability overlaminates matched to the ID card body properties will help protect an ID card against damage by moisture.

Ultraviolet Light: Prolonged exposure to sunlight and other UV sources can fade printed images on plastic ID cards, causing color washout, pixelated images and partial characters. UV exposure can also degrade some protective layers and laminates more than others, so careful selection of ID card printing and finishing technologies can help reduce the effects of UV exposure.

De-Lamination: The different ID card body materials each have certain overlaminates and topcoats with which they will have better adhesion. Selecting the overlaminate best suited to the particular ID card body substrate being used is crucial for avoiding premature separation of overlaminates from the ID card surface.

Usage Patterns: Customer usage patterns will have a significant impact on an ID card’s lifespan. The majority of banking cards use a contact interface, are made from PVC, are normally held in a protective wallet or purse and are typically used an average of 2-3 times per week, and so tend to have a life expectancy of 3-5 years. By comparison; transport cards tend to use a contactless interface, are often kept with other items in a pocket or handbag and are typically used an average of 10-12 times per week, but though these type of ID cards are generally used far more frequently, they tend to have a longer life expectancy of 5-7 years due mainly to the absence of direct contact with an ID card reader. Identification cards tend to be used far less frequently than either banking or transport ID cards and are generally better protected by the user, so such ID cards are widely predicted to deliver life expectancy in excess of 10 years, if made with high quality ID card body materials, durable ID card printing processes and protective overlay coatings.

Applied Personalization and Finishing Issues Affecting ID Card Durability:

ID card durability can be heavily impacted by what is added to the ID card body. For instance, a blank ID card body could withstand from 10,000 to 100,000 flexes during its life, depending on the materials used, but when ID card printing is added, the flex life of an ID card may decrease, and be further reduced with the addition of embossing, magnetic stripes, embedded IC modules and laminated IC/Antenna modules. Therefore, the effects of personalized ID card printing and finishing on the lifespan of the finished ID card needs to be carefully considered. Wise selection of ID card printing and finishing technologies matched to the choice of ID card materials and chip insertion and connection methods can extend the life of an ID card significantly.

The smart card industry offers a broad range of ID card protection alternatives, including topcoats, clear overlaminates and secure polyester laminates which can include holographic images, high resolution security images and advanced security optical devices. Each offers a unique level of protection and can be used individually or in combination to preserve printed images from the destructive elements they are exposed to daily, and extend the card lifespan.

Polyester laminates were developed specifically for national ID card and driver’s license programs requiring an extended ID card life. They provide the best chemical and abrasion protection and when applied to composite ID cards meet or exceed most specifications for abrasion and chemical durability. The most durable laminate is a thick polyester laminate that incorporates a heat-activated bonding layer, designed to be applied to an ID card with uniform heat and pressure which results in a strong bond between the laminate and ID card surface. These ID card overlaminates can be applied over ID cards that have been personalized with magnetic stripes, graphics, dye diffusion and thermal transfer imaged photos and pictures.

A clear topcoat is a 3–4 microns thick protective resin layer applied over the face of an ID card, bonded to its surface, protecing bar codes, signature capture, variable text, logos and images from abrasions and chemical attack of daily use.

It is important to keep intended usage considerations in mind when deciding which security and personalisation features to add to an ID card design. The smart card industry recommends applying a protective coating or laminates to virtually every smart card containing color photos, and also suggests that all forms of personalization printing should be kept away from ID card edges and other wear-prone areas. Other personalization and security processes such as embossing and laser engraving can also influence the durability of ID cards, as they physically alter the body of the ID card, which may cause stress weakness points. The application of high quality protective topcoats and overlaminates can go a long way to mitigating these potential problems.

Chip Limitations: In the past, the number of times that data could be written to a smart card chip was a limiting factor, but technological developments have extended the read/write cycle limits of smart cards to over 500,000 cycles. Similarly, the length of time that data can be securely stored in a smart card chip’s memory has been extended as well. The limits are now well beyond the 10 year life expectancy of national ID cards, and the only significant limitation comes from the logical data stored in the chip, in particular, digital signatures and certificates, which can have a limited validity. Changing the PKI certificate may require a re-issue of an ID card.

Durability Testing Standards: ID card durability is a significant consideration in government ID card applications. The ID card industry has a plethora of materials and processes available to meet nearly any ID card need, but the selection of materials and processes usually involve some trade-offs, so it’s important to have the necessary tools for evaluating the trade-offs in a consistent, educated manner.

Select The ID Card Type (Contact, Contactless, Dual, Hybrid): Evaluate the comparative drivers influencing ID card type selection including; legacy ID card reader infrastructure, required ease of use, data security requirements, relative costs, preferred chip hardware and operating system, and determine the most suitable ID card type for the intended use.

Select The Most Suitable ID Card Substrate: The choice of ID card body substrate material will have a very significant impact on the serviceable life of a smart card. PVC cards are generally accepted to be unsuitable for national ID projects and would not be recommended for any project with an ID card reissue cycle of more than 5 years. While Polycarbonate has a much higher resistance to damage from heat, flexing and UV and is therefore much better suited to such projects, it can have a tendency of brittleness. The ideal choice would be a composite ID card body constructed from bonded layers of different materials.

Add Printing and Security Technologies That Are Compatible With The ID Card Substrate: The choice of ID card body material can influence the available options for ID card printing and finishing. For example, certain ID card printing processes require that the inks or dyes used are absorbed by the ID card substrate, therefore the absorption properties of different ID card substrate can make some print finishes unsuitable. The same holds true for security features, in particular those processes which physically alter the ID card body, including laser engraving, embossing, microprinting, optically variable devices and electro-photography, which may cause stress weakness points. The application of high quality protective topcoats and overlaminates can go a long way to mitigating these deteriorating effects. The smart card industry recommends applying a protective coating or overlaminates to any smart card containing color photos and also suggests that all forms of personalisation should be kept away from ID card edges and other wear-prone areas.

Add Protective Overlaminates or Finishes To Prolong ID Card Life: The smart card industry offers a broad range of ID card finishing options offering unique levels of ID card protection, including topcoats, clear laminates and secure polyester overlaminates. Many laminates can be supplied with embedded customized high resolution UV or custom holographic security images and advanced security optical devices. These protective finishes can be used individually or in combination to preserve printed images and extend the life of personalized ID cards from the destructive elements they are exposed to daily. The most durable laminate is a thick polyester laminate that has been developed specifically for national ID card and driver’s license programs.

Ensure That Your Finished Smart Card Passes Standard Durability Tests: For large-scale high volume ID card printing deployments, or projects where ID card issuing happens over a number of years, it is important to maintain an ongoing quality assurance program, by continuously testing random samples from ID card printing production runs, to ensure that ID cards continue to meet established durability testing standards. To be successful, a smart card program faces many trade-offs and the right components for the complete use chain must be carefully selected and qualified to ensure that the ID card meets the expected performance levels.