Campus & Community

New ID cards make college life safer

4 min read

‘Smart’ cards going to undergrads, others

Just tap it.

That’s this year’s first homework for returning undergraduates, new freshmen, and others in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) who need access to FAS’s residential Houses and Harvard Yard dormitories.

By the start of classes, about 10,000 members of the Harvard community will be issued ID cards that take advantage of new technologies and are easier to use than the old ones.

The new card — embedded with a computer chip and a specialized antenna — can be tapped against wall-mounted readers, or read from a few inches away, even through clothing or a wallet.

The new card goes to FAS students, resident tutors, proctors, dining service workers, Senior Common Room members, and vendors who need access to the residential facilities. About 450 swipe-style card readers at Harvard Houses and dormitories have been replaced.

In the near future, University officials said, the remainder of the Harvard community will be re-carded. Other Schools will adopt the new ID card and its flexible technologies based on their individual needs.

Both the new and old cards will still work in swipe-card readers used for access to libraries, classrooms, athletic facilities, Crimson Cash, and more.

New cardholders will not have to call anybody or turn anything on, Harvard experts said. No interruption in access is anticipated.

The new cards are called “smart cards” because they contain an embedded computer chip. The tiny microprocessor — as thin as a hair and the size of a fingertip —makes these next-generation ID cards very difficult to duplicate.

Older ID cards use magnetic stripes or bar codes. But even though ID cards that rely on magnetic stripes may be low-cost and easily programmed, they are not very durable or technologically flexible.

Moving to the new cards comes less than a year after a Harvard College student was caught producing fake IDs.

The incident prompted a University task force of experts in administration, security, and technology to study the latest in ID and building-access devices, in search of a system resistant to counterfeiting.

The task force settled on smart cards that are known as “HID iClass” cards. They should not be confused with “prox” or “MIFARE” cards, which are based on different technologies.

The “contactless” HID smart cards being introduced at Harvard can hold multiple credentials, process more transactions than other card technologies, and — because of encryption — are very difficult to fake.

Harvard’s new tap-and-go ID cards are embedded with a cryptographic chip that is unique to the University. That adds an additional level of protection against fraudulent copying.

Holding the new ID card next to a reader begins a cascade of “mutual authentication” steps that resembles a successive comparison of keys. The card reader “asks” the card, “Do you have the same key I do?” If the answer is no, nothing further happens.

The format of data exchanged by card, reader, and a downstream controller device is specific to Harvard.

The smart cards are also more secure for a nontechnological reason: To get one, a student or staffer must present a valid government-issued photo ID — not just an old Harvard ID card.

Forget sentiment too. You have to surrender your old ID card in order to get a new one. (Old IDs will be shredded and discarded.)

At first glance, the new cards are nearly identical to the old. They’re the same credit-card size, though feel slightly thicker, and they have the same white background as the old cards.

On the front is the same text and picture positioning. On the back is the familiar wide magnetic stripe (“magstripe”), but along with some additions: a second (and thinner) magnetic stripe, an iClass external identification number, and an HID iClass copyright line.

Embedded inside the card itself is a thin, framelike antenna coil, which is used to transmit the card’s information to wall-mounted readers.

Both the new magstripe and the antenna are features that can accommodate future software and applications. Some day, for instance, smart cards could be adapted for secure document printing or for the “logical access” needed to secure information technology systems.

The new cards require some extra precautions. Because of the internal chip and antenna, they can’t be bent, punched with holes, run through the dryer, stored near a heat source, or even be left out in direct sunlight. Users should also not scratch the magnetic stripes by mixing their ID cards with change, keys, or other objects.

Harvard officials also pass on an amusingly New England caution: Don’t use the new smart cards to scrape ice off your car windshield.

Replacement costs for the high-tech ID cards will reflect the high cost of making them. Harvard’s traditional swipe-style cards cost 5 cents each. Every new smart card costs $7.50.