How Countries Around the World Encode IDs

ID cards exist in different forms and flavors, but they all serve one basic purpose: to identify you at a glance. Unfortunately, those appearances can be deceiving with IDs that are made to look like the real thing.

So, what do you do when a cursory glance fails you? You start going for something a bit more sophisticated. That often means adding extra layers of security like unique identifiable numbers or scannable types of data.

There are different ways this issue can be tackled. Each country has its own way of doing things. Let’s break down just how these encoding options find themselves on cards.

The Need for Encoding

At first glance, it might seem unnecessary to go through the trouble of encoding data when it can just be stringed together. However, that’s only as good as keeping your computer password on a sticky note on your screen.

The whole point of encoding is to generate a unique way to identify someone without giving away how it’s generated. It’s like making a key to a lock without revealing how it’s made and what materials were used.

This is why it’s effective. Only the person who manufactures the ID can know if it’s been made and encoded correctly.

Exploring Different Encoding Processes

Encoding options are plenty and are different for different types of cards, whether that’s a standard ID, a driver’s license or your employee card. Bottom line, it’s all different.

Encoding can be something as simple as putting down a long number on the ID card. It can also be something like adding a more interactive and scannable type of data. This can be in the form of adding barcodes, magnetic stripes, and even readable chips.

1. Barcode Encoding

Slapping on a barcode on your ID card is one of the most commonly used ways of handling encoding. After all, it’s cheap and easily doable. You don’t need any special equipment or materials to make a barcode.

It can be generated with any old computer and printed with the standard printers. This makes it an inexpensive and effective solution.

2. Magnetic Stripe Encoding

Another common way of encoding data onto IDs, driver’s licenses, and other cards is by using magnetic stripes. This method takes data and compresses it into a magnetic stripe that can be scanned by a reader.

The working idea behind it is that you encode data by using magnetic capabilities. Small particles on the stripe known as ferromagnetic particles are shifted and arranged to store data.

This is a bit more expensive than using the standard barcodes, but it can store data that not everyone can read.

3. Smart Chip Encoding

Smart chips have marked a big breakthrough in this arena. They are used to store data that wouldn’t typically fit on a magnetic stripe because they can store about 100 times more information.

These chips are nifty little things. They have a small microprocessor and wireless antenna built into the chip.

This helps display the data when needed. Smart chips offer even more security and functionality than almost all currently available encoding methods.

4. Contactless Encoding

So far, all the encoding methods have had to make contact with something, whether it’s a laser on a barcode, metal contact with a smart card, or magnetic contact with a magnetic stripe.

However, these days, you can find cards that can transmit stored data without being touched at all.

Contactless encoded cards like NFC and RFID use radio waves to broadcast their information. They emit a very specific frequency which can be listened by a reader and used to send data.

They’re also limited by a short range, which prevents people from wirelessly hacking into your cards.

5. Data Encoding at a Glance

The whole purpose of encoding your IDs is so they can be scanned and verified at a moment’s notice. If ID encoding meant literally dumping your personal records by the boatload on the card, they would be time-consuming and inefficient.

That’s why data is often encoded by a large number or string. This number is generated from your personal data like your name, ID number/SSN and DOB.

This ends up creating a number that’s unique to you and can be used to determine authenticity.

To Hash or Not to Hash: Encrypting Your Encoding

Storing sensitive personal data on your card can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s easy to have your cards verified with little hassle. On the other, it can be a gateway to someone stealing your data off you.

This is why it’s important to encrypt the data stored on the ID. Sounds logical, right? And you’re probably assuming it’s already done everywhere. Well, not really.

There are a ton of locations that generate ID numbers purely using your personal details and stringing them together. For example, if you live in Ontario or Florida, you can easily go online and find out how to get personal details out of an ID number. You can even find sites that can convert your ID number to reveal your details or vice versa.

Thankfully, Europe has tackled all this with eID cards. They encrypt their data blocks with hashing algorithms. The data can only be unencrypted and read with an encryption key that makes the data readable.

This is essential because even if some third party manages to scan or read the data, it’ll look like gibberish to them. They’ll need the encryption key to unlock it, which isn’t available to them.

The hope is that this becomes a trend for encoding in the future so that it can reduce identity theft and security risks. Until then, we might as well be an open book.

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