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Security key for smart card

In an effort to bring a new level of security, a French company unveils a smart card that uses a 1,024-bit key, the most secure yet created.

In an effort to bring a new level of security to electronic commerce and personal data storage, a French company today unveiled a smart card that uses a 1,024-bit key, the longest and therefore the most secure key created so far.

Schlumberger Electronic Transactions announced Cryptoflex, a smart card that relies on a cryptography algorithm from market leader RSA Data Security. Most smart cards use a 512-bit key, but Schlumberger is out to produce the most secure smart card in the industry.

The company is also working with Microsoft as part of an initiative called PC/SC Workgroup to define a standard way for smart cards to work with personal computers. The group is scheduled next week to release an open specification that will encompass the myriad of smart card schemes, many of which are incompatible so that smart cards will only work with a select group of PCs, unlike ATM or credit cards, for example.

"Smart cards are starting to happen. What we're seeing now is the beginning," Karen Epper, an analyst at Forrester Research, which just published a report on smart cards.

Schlumberger's Cryptoflex card is based on a new high-performance chip from Motorola. It is targeted at uses beyond commerce such as network security, confidential medical data, and "loyalty programs" such as airline frequent-flyer plans.

Samples are available now with general availability next year.

In another major smart card announcement today, Mondex International and six major U.S. financial institutions announced the formation of a new company with the mission of promoting the Mondex smart card as a kind of electronic cash card. Wells Fargo Bank will own 30 percent of Mondex U.S.A. and Wells executive Janet Crane will serve as president and CEO.

Other investors include AT&T Universal Card Services, Chase Manhattan, Dean Witter Discover (NOVUS), First Chicago NBD, MasterCard International, and Michigan National Bank. Last month, MasterCard bought a 51 percent share of Mondex International.

Mondex is the best-known scheme for using smart cards to deliver electronic cash. These cards are already widely used in Europe and Asia but haven't yet caught on in the United States. Mondex allows users to buy a card valued at a set amount and then use it for purchases online or at retailers until the card runs out of money.

Electronic cash is one of the potential uses of smart cards. Both Microsoft and Netscape Communications see smart cards as a secure way to authenticate the identity of a user to allow access to authorized data on a network, a way of verifying a users' identity that is generally considered more secure than software-only schemes. Both Microsoft and Netscape are expected to support smart cards in their Internet software next year.