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It’s hard to believe, but smart cards – a defining technology of the modern world – are over 50 years old

2018 marked the anniversary of an invention that has changed the daily lives of millions of people worldwide. Fifty years ago, on September 28, the first patent for chip card technology was filed and the method of authentication changed forever.

You use chip cards daily. We all do. As credit and debit payment cards, as the SIM card in your phone and your various identification cards, from company badges to passports. Although the formats may differ in size, color, and shape, the core functionality remains identical to that original patent filing: to provide secure authentication and communication between devices.

Smart cards have been an integral component of the business of G+D Mobile Security for decades. Indeed, G+D was there at the creation of the technology, and has remained a world leading supplier of smart card hardware and technology, and related services, ever since.

Chip cards (also known as smart cards or integrated circuit cards) may be simple in appearance – but don’t let the modest exterior fool you: they wield a mighty power. The integrated circuitry enables you to access your money, pay for goods or services, use your phone, open locked doors, and much more.

“Don’t let the modest exterior fool you: chip cards wield a mighty power“

A brief history of smart cards

Chip of a smart card close up
The original patent for chip card technology, filed over 50 years ago, described the foundation of trust that underlies the technology to this day

The technology on which modern smart cards are based was created in the late 1960s and 1970s, based on the initial patent filed in 1968 by German inventors Helmut Grötrupp and Jürgen Dethloff.

Gröttrup (1916−1981), also known as a rocket scientist, became Managing Director of Giesecke+Devrient’s GAO subsidiary in 1970, and the rights to his invention transferred to Giesecke+Devrient. Subsequently, G+D played an integral part in developing chip card technology.

Today, smart cards number in their billions. The advent of EMV technology and eSIM technology is expected to boost this number further, as ever more connected IoT devices are launched and tiny form factors are adapted for these devices.

Looking back, smart card technology is considered to be among the 50 top German technology inventions of all time – ranking alongside such revolutionary items as diesel engines, refrigerators, spark plugs, and the MP3 file format.

A secure electronic key

Grötrupp and Dethloff filed the original patent in Austria in 1968 and in Germany the following year. The patents described an “identification circuit” that outlined the structure of a smart card containing security features, and included a contactless data transmission system by means of “inductive coupling.” Their goal was to create an electronic key that could not be copied and could transmit encrypted data. The patent described the foundation of trust that underlies chip card technology to this day.

Dethloff took the technology even further in a new patent application by using microprocessors and EEPROMs to make data handling even safer and more flexible. G+D purchased this application and developed three fundamental, global patents from it.

These patents describe the secure initialization and personalization only through authorized locations in card production, writing properties based on the non-volatile programmable read/write memory (EEPROM), the use of a charge pump to prevent tampering during the writing process, and the blocking or self destruction of the information in the event of an attack.

From French payphones to IoT and beyond

The first products that included chip card technology in large numbers were telephone cards for French payphones, which were released in 1983. Another example of G+D technology leadership and innovation in chip cards occurred in the early 1990s, when the company invented and began selling the first pluggable SIM cards with an integrated chip.

Today, smart cards are as commonplace in daily life as microwave ovens, mobile phones, and televisions. It is almost impossible to imagine life without them – and they are continuing to find new uses in this always‐connected world.

Through the pioneering work of Groettrup and Dethloff, the way we live our daily lives has become easier and more efficient, and this significant contribution to technological innovation has brought major changes to the way we deal with technology.

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