I speak at 30 finance industry conferences a year, and I always start with the same question: “How many in the audience think you know how the ATM knows who you are?”

Consistently, about 5% raise their hand.

Half of that 5% attribute card transaction identification to the personal identification number. They are wrong. The teller machine knows who you are because the card’s magnetic stripe records the issuing institution’s identification number and your account number. The PIN only confirms your identification.

A very low percentage of industry professionals — represented by the audience sampling — understand the basic technology of striped cards, even after 25 years of widespread use.

The best answer I have received on the question of card technology was from a young man in a teller-machine line: “I don’t know. I don’t care. The ATM better work when I get there.” The public seeks convenience and reliability. That seems to apply equally to the industry.

The smart card is a transaction card with an embedded integrated circuit chip, which is reached by a set of surface contacts or by wireless connection (a “contactless” smart card).

At the Smart Card Forum’s eighth annual conference, held last month in San Francisco, my discussion with audience members quickly confirmed three types of attendees. Most had no real knowledge of smart card technology; in fact, this was the first forum they had attended. Others had some experience with the cards. A small number had a good grasp of the subject and its jargon.

The conference chair never mentioned smart cards, and few session chairmen took the time to quiz panel participants on their use of them. But the speakers themselves generally used technical language.

Unfortunately, even I had difficulty following talk filled with references to standards, protocols, and “common platforms” — and I have several years of smart card background,

The lesson is simple: Quality control is necessary to ensure that presenters speak at an audience’s level. A few minutes of introduction and clarification would help. It would also be valuable to discuss smart card economics, actual installations and results, and growth and application projections.

This isn’t to say the Smart Card Forum was nonstop mumbo jumbo. There was plenty of perfectly lucid content about wireless communications and the implications for security and privacy. Talk about the use of smart cards led to discussions about dual card acceptors, electronic wallets, compact keyboards, and voice recognition, and about all sorts of growth opportunities.

The risk panel highlighted smart cards’ role in security and privacy. Others discussed the use of smart cards in e-commerce and traced their evolution from an access device to a digital signature and certificate carrier into the communications environment.

Several of the shortcomings described here can be corrected with a forum management willing to talk smart card basics, better introduce the presenters’ subject matter, and make discussions less technical.

If not, I’ll offer local discussion groups at the corner coffee shop.

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