New products, Protecting yourself

Security invention would embed data into credit card plastic

Jay MacDonald

I was dining vicariously with A.J. Jacobs recently as I worked my way through his entertaining/revolting Sunday New York Times article entitled, “Dinner is Printed.”

In it, Jacobs teams up with a Cornell 3-D printing expert to print a romantic Italian dinner for his wife – complete with plates, stemware and utensils.

gordon-smith.jpgSuffice to say, unless your idea of a dream date involves eating Frankenfood fabricated from insect protein, I’d stick to Olive Garden.

But something Jacobs mentions early on in the article pierced my Sunday morning fog. The passage reads: “Will (3-D printing) save the world? Will it bring on the apocalypse, with millions manufacturing their own AK-47s? Or is it all an absurd hubbub about a machine that spits out chintzy plastic trinkets?”

Hmmm. Like, say, credit cards?

News out of Great Britain multiplied my musings when a University of Warwick professor named Gordon Smith announced that his team has figured out a way to embed data into the credit card plastic itself. They do this by manipulating the polarity of the particles that make up the plastic during the injection molding process. There’s even a demo on YouTube.

If this seemingly simple, low-tech solution to our high-tech problem of card security can be easily and affordably incorporated into the card manufacturing process, there’s no telling how many bazillions in fraud losses it might save consumers, merchants and card issuers in the very near future. It’s also likely to buy Smith a private island in the Maldives with the patent.

First to go would be the embossed account numbers on the card face and the magnetic stripe on the reverse side. Those legacy systems remain on U.S. cards primarily to interface with equally obsolete payment terminals that date back to the Nixon administration. Smith’s process could embed the data of both features directly into the card, obviating the need for holograms and other doodads.

“The data can either be made visible to the naked eye or hidden so that it can be read by a low-cost ‘black box’ scanner,” he says. Merchants in particular will like that “low cost” qualifier.

Invisibility would thwart old-school card thieves who scribble card numbers and codes while serving you lunch. “We know this will be of great interest to range of manufacturers seeking to combat counterfeiting in injection moulded products or add security features to credit cards.” He’s seeking a manufacturing partner now.

The image would be noncloneable, and would eliminate the need for a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip, a common card feature that unfortunately can be hacked using radio signals.

While the A.J. Jacobs mindblower left me a little haunted by a mental image of folks printing off Centurion Cards on their home 3-D printers, I’m soldiering into the future encouraged that the Gordon Smiths of the world are discovering ways to keep credit cards simple — and real.

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  • I live in the UK and haven’t picked this up in the press yet.
    Like many great ideas – its simplicity is its key.
    Card fraud is such a serious problem i bet the banks are falling over themselves to test out this technology.
    I doubt if consumer will see much direct benefit though, as the outcome will be a stronger bottom line and higher share price for the banks.

  • There seems to be a misunderstanding of where most of the fraud comes from. Simply hiding the card information from view does not solve fraud. The problem with fraud is merchants, acquirers, and processors storing credit card numbers. Being PCI compliance does very little to slow fraud. Adobe got hacked and lost 3 million credit cards, the Playstation network lost 70 million card numbers, how does this solution solve this problem? Sure the waiter taking a pic of your card is a problem, but it doesn’t even begin to describe the real problem which is using credit cards at the POS.
    Let me be clear, the people that scribble your card data on a piece of paper is NOT responsible for the $54 billion in losses per year in the U.S. This comes from the hackers that streal hundreds of millions of credit card numbers from servers whether they are encrypted or not.