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EMV chip card torture test

Are credit cards waterproof? Dryerproof? Can they stand up to sriracha? We tested

By  |  Published: August 18, 2017

Jay MacDonald
Personal Finance Writer
Exploring the cultural impact of credit cards

 

 

The long-delayed arrival of the contactless EMV chip card to the heretofore exclusively mag-stripe shores of North America brought with it a wallet full of questions. “How do you swipe it?” (You don’t; you insert it). “Which end do you insert?” (Duh: the one with the chip). “What’s a chip?” And so forth.

But once we mag-stripers evolved past the slot-machine pull of the swipe to the civilized handshake of the insert, one major question remained: How tough is my new EMV card?

HOW YOUR EMV CHIP CARD
HANDLES COMMON THREATS
  1. Water
  2. Cold
  3. Heat
  4. Electronics
  5. Magnets and X-rays
  6. Bending and cutting
  7. Corrosive liquids
HOW YOUR EMV CHIP CARD HANDLES COMMON THREATS
  1. Water
  2. Cold
  3. Heat
  4. Electronics
  5. Magnets and X-rays
  6. Bending and cutting
  7. Corrosive liquids

After all, now that our plastic suddenly contains an electronic computer chip and, within its contactless versions, a near-field communications (NFC) antenna, will it still survive those desperate, nontransactional uses we occasionally put it to, such as scraping windshield ice and grating cheese? Are credit cards waterproof? Dryerproof? Can they stand up to sriracha?

To find out, we put the EMV credit card through unthinkable hypothetical tortures with the help of global card manufacturing experts Barry Mosteller, director of technical engineering and quality at CPI Card Group, and Amol Deshmukh, vice president of mobile financial solutions at Gemalto. We also plumbed the findings of Austrian academics Michael Roland and Michael Hölzl, who put contactless smartcard antennas through their paces.

How tough is your EMV chip card? Here’s how it stands up to some of its likeliest threats.

1. Water
Is your credit card waterproof? Rest easy: The answer is yes, definitely, including salt water.

According to Mosteller, the integrated circuit (chip) and NFC wiring are sealed in epoxy resin, the back of the chip’s contact plate is “hot-melt” sealed to its polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pocket, and the whole works is then sealed inside the card’s plastic layers, which are bonded together using a hot platen lamination process.

“For these reasons, water cannot get to the electronics,” he says. “I have worked with a customer that used to require that cards be placed into a pressure cooker and survive heat, pressure and water for a period of time, which is much more severe than immersion in water.”

2. Cold
How much cold can your smartcard stand? According to Deshmukh, Gemalto starts with the card manufacturing specs set by the independent, nongovernmental International Organization of Standardization (ISO), then exceeds them.

“ISO will say a card needs to withstand -35 degrees Celsius (-31 degrees Fahrenheit) for one hour and then 50 C (122 F) for one hour with rapid changing,” he explains. “We’ll expose them to harsher conditions because, at the end of the day, we need to stand by our product, but there aren’t too many places where it’s consistently 31-below Fahrenheit.”

Mosteller notes that some cards withstand their most frigid test simply getting to the cardholder. “In the winter, these cards are delivered by mail and can sit in the mailboxes in some locations at temperatures below -30 degrees Fahrenheit for hours, and they will still work,” he says.

Nor does a cardholder’s geographical location affect a card’s cold-hardiness. “We wouldn’t make a customized card that couldn’t handle all these conditions because card users travel,” notes Deshmukh.

“If your dryer is working in good condition and doesn’t burn your clothes up, you’re in good shape.”

3. Heat
Will your smartcard withstand heat? Yes, to a degree. Because the chip is inside the card when the plastic layers are hot-platen laminated together, the chip will function to temperatures above 285 F. “The manufacturers say it will survive over 350 degrees Fahrenrheit,” Mosteller adds.

But the card itself? Not so much.

“While the card body will reach temperatures around 285 degrees Fahrenheit in production, the PVC is held under pressure between two stainless steel plates, which will keep the plastic smooth and flat,” Mosteller explains. “If the card is exposed to elevated temperatures of a dryer or even a car dashboard on a hot day, the PVC can warp, which can make it impossible to get the card into a card reader.”

But Deshmukh says most smartcards will easily withstand the occasional brush with a hair blower or hot dryer. “If your dryer is working in good condition and doesn’t burn your clothes up, you’re in good shape,” he says.

4. Electronics
Chances are slim that any form of electronics will interfere with your smartcard.

“These cards sit in phones, and they are the ones that provide the security and connectivity to 3G towers and things like that, so they’re exposed to a lot of electronics. They don’t have a problem at all,” says Deshmukh.

Mosteller agrees: “The data on the card will not get scrambled when exposed to any electronics you will normally find in your environment,” he says. “However, if the EMV chip is a contactless product that communicates via NFC, then metal or other NFC fields can block or ‘jam’ communications for that moment, but will not affect performance of the card once it’s away from the interference.”

COULD A CARD CHIP ACCIDENTALLY FALL OUT?

CPI engineering chief Barry Mosteller says the chances of a card slipping a chip are almost nil. The way the chip is bonded into the card, it would take 11.24 pound-force to dislodge it.

Still, “if the chip was found by a fraudster, they could put it in another card and be able to use it in chip mode, getting the transaction charged to you,” he says. “But if you have chip and PIN, the fraudster would not have your PIN and could not make the transaction.”

While the chipless card’s magnetic stripe could still function in point-of-sale devices that do not accept chip, Gemalto vice president of marketing Philippe Benitez says chip terminals would flag the problem immediately. “The stripe does have an indicator that it is from an EMV chip card, and the POS terminal would request for you to insert the chip and card instead of swiping,” he explains.

The fraudster would not have the information to clone your magnetic stripe data to the card he put your chip into. “So no worries here,” says Mosteller.

Best move should your card slip its chip? “Shred the card and request a replacement,” Benitez advises.

COULD A CARD CHIP ACCIDENTALLY FALL OUT?

CPI engineering chief Barry Mosteller says the chances of a card slipping a chip are almost nil. The way the chip is bonded into the card, it would take an 11.24 pound-force to dislodge it.

Still, “If the chip was found by a fraudster, they could put it in another card and be able to use it in chip mode, getting the transaction charged to you,” he says. “But if you have chip and PIN, the fraudster would not have your PIN and could not make the transaction.”

While the chipless card’s magnetic stripe could still function in point of sale devices that do not accept chip, Gemalto vice president of marketing Philippe Benitez says chip terminals would flag the problem immediately. “The stripe does have an indicator that it is from an EMV chip card, and the POS terminal would request for you to insert the chip and card instead of swiping,” he explains.

The fraudster would not have the information to clone your magnetic stripe data to the card he put your chip into. “So no worries here,” says Mosteller.

Best move should your card slip a chip? “Shred the card and request a replacement,” Benitez advises.

5. Magnets and X-rays
Rest assured, your EMV chip card will withstand magnetic meddling.

“EMV cards are required to survive magnetic energy and X-rays up to a predetermined amount that is in excess of what you would normally expose the card to in the environment,” Mosteller says. “Even the magnetic stripe on these cards is hardened against magnetic energy.”

6. Bending and cutting
Let’s face it, we beat our cards up. Why do they hold up so well? Because the card makers beat them up, too.

“There are many tests required in the construction of a card to insure its durability,” Mosteller explains.

Before you even receive your EMV card, its prototype has already withstood hundreds of short- and long-side flex tests, 15-degree torsion twists and bends around a bar in four directions, as well as having its chip module tested by opposing weighted ball bearings and a hole cut into its backside to check its contact plate.

That said, if you accidentally cut your card, you stand a pretty good chance of disabling its contactless payment function, as most NFC antenna wires to date are wrapped several times around the smartcard’s outer edges.

In their experiments, Professors Roland and Hölzl cut each of four antenna wires in sequence. While they lost contactless NFC use with the first cut, “in all cases, we could still successfully access the card through its contact interface,” they said.

“As long as the (chip) module is not cut, the EMV functionality would still work, if you can still get the card into a reader in the correct position for the contacts to hit the contact plate correctly,” Mosteller says. “But that may be quite a challenge!”

“If it’s going to burn your skin, it’s going to burn your card. But on normal wear and tear, these cards just last.”

7. Corrosive liquids
Can a smartcard withstand a splash of bleach, vinegar, gasoline, paint thinner or General Tso’s sauce?

“Oh yes, absolutely,” says Deshmukh. “In fact, we conduct tests where we expose them to acidic and alkaline solutions to really make sure that there’s no adverse effects in terms of delamination or discoloration. That’s another concern, because the brand of the financial institution is so strong, we don’t want discoloration because some sauce was spilled on it.”

Obviously, there are limits. Roland and Hölzl succeeded in delaminating a test card by placing it in paint thinner for several days – but why would you, right?

“If it’s going to burn your skin, it’s going to burn your card,” Deshmukh says. “But on normal wear and tear, these cards just last. That’s why we’re seeing the expiration date on cards getting longer. Not long ago, it used to be three years; now you’ll see five.”

And if a careless waiter should accidentally drop your card with General Tso’s sauce?

“It will be OK,” Deshmukh says. “You’re going to want to lick it later, but it’ll be OK.”

See related: Video: How EMV chips are made, 8 FAQs about EMV credit cards, Licking, plastic bagging and other credit card secrets

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Updated: 09-21-2017

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