Ohio State University Professor Developing Credit Card To Outsmart Thieves

Published: .
Updated: .

Target recently reported that its fourth quarter profits fell almost 50 percent because of the national credit card breach.  New research going on at Ohio State University may help to put a safer credit card in your wallet.

With the swipe of a card, paying for something is easy.  But as millions of Target customers learned last Christmas, it's also easy for thieves.

"They'll steal large numbers of credit card account numbers, and then print counterfeit cards and use those cards until they're reported stolen," said Jason Oxman of the Electronics Transaction Association last December.

That sounded familiar to Paul Berger, OSU professor of electrical and computer engineering.  It happened to his family, too.

"Actually, my wife just got a credit card replaced," he said.

Berger wants to make sure what happened to his wife and millions of others is rare in the future.  He is working with a team from Finland to create a new kind of credit card. The cards Americans use have information on a magnetic strip.

"There's absolutely zero protection," he said.

The cards Europeans use have information on a silicon chip. When a merchant runs a card through a reader with a pin number, the card reader contains a clock.

"This will generate an encrypted key.  And that encrypted key will only be valid for a specific amount of time before it expires," he explained.

Berger wants to go one step further.  He's working to create a micro-computer that's not just on the card - but in it.

"It's basically a hardware encryption. If it was simply a software encryption, then it's a lot more hackable,"  Berger said.

Within information as part of the hardware, he said it's much harder for thieves to steal it.

He said that many banks have been reluctant to adopt newer, safer technology because it would mean scrapping not only all the credit cards, but also all the card readers and cash registers around the country. In addition to that expense, he said there is the expense of the silicon chip itself.  Cards with silicon chips are expensive...around a dollar each.  But his new process, made from an organic polymer, is much cheaper.  The price drops to less than 10 centers per card.

The process begins in liquid form.

"We simply make a solution. It's like making paint," he said.

They dissolve the polymer in a solvent then use a printer to produce it.  

"Instead of different colors of an inkjet printer cartridge, now you just think of the different parts of the integrated circuit being printed."

Berger said that his partners in Finland are perfecting a way to print this material on plastic, incorporating the tiny computer into the credit card.  Those cards would have microscopic antennae that convert radio frequencies into voltage.  That would power up the plastic computer inside the card.

Eventually, instead of inserting a credit card in a machine to be read, the machine could read it directly from the owner's wallet.

He expects within five years, banks will have to switch to safer technology because big security breaches are costing them millions.

"That cost of doing business is just not sustainable anymore," Berger said.