Someday, a single card, yours exclusively, will allow you to enter your government office building with a single flash or swipe. At your office, you will use your card to log on to your personal computer, gaining access to your program's secure databases.

When you need to take an official government trip, your card serves not only as your passport but as a method of paying for your airline ticket. Want to know how much money you have in your retirement fund? Access the Internet with your smart card and -- voila! -- there is your data.

Get sick overseas? No problem. Your health data is stored on a tiny microchip, allowing physicians on another continent to obtain your entire medical history and to treat you with confidence.

You need to buy a new printer? The card will allow you to make small purchases through the Internet.

Smart Cards -- What are They?

We are all aware of the conveniences of the ubiquitous magnetic-stripe card, which is used today for everything from an ATM transaction to a credit-card purchase at the "point of sale." A smart card stores information on a tiny chip embedded in the card -- called an integrated circuit chip. Both magnetic-stripe cards and smart cards store information; however, a smart card actually carries data on the card itself.

The major advantages of smart cards are that they store much more information than can be stored on a magnetic-stripe card -- between 10 and 100 times more; they have the capability to remotely process data by relying upon a central processing unit that actually resides on the chip; and they are more secure.

Magnetic-stripe cards are notorious for their lack of security. When were you last asked for photo identification to buy dinner with your MasterCard? Smart cards resolve this dicey problem.

Today, the most common type of card is the magnetic stripe card. Another type is the "hybrid" card, which contains both a magnetic-stripe and an embedded strip. This card allows access to smart-card hardware as well as to merchant card readers, ATMs and bar coders. These hold great promise for providing people the opportunity to use the cards for multiple purposes.

Why Do We Need Smart Cards?

The government's need for smart cards is driven, in large measure, by the move to reduce administrative costs and to make transactions more secure. Smart cards can also be used to replace outdated federal processes for delivering services to government employees and residents. Another important benefit is that smart cards improve accountability and reporting. These new requirements come on the heels of a greatly reduced federal government.

The cost reduction in smart-card adoption is expected to be remarkable. One agency found each paper procurement transaction costs about $77 in administrative processing; magnetic-stripe card transactions cost about $17 each. One prediction is that this sum can be halved again for secure Internet purchasing, which brings the administrative cost to less than $10 each.

People often associate smart cards with the exchange of money. The smart card was born in the European phone and financial services industries, but it will have its adolescence elsewhere. Rather than limiting the function of the smart card to the exchange of value, think of smart cards as a token to identify the user to a system.

There are ambitious plans for the federal government, spearheaded by the General Services Administration (GSA) and federal program agencies, to deliver government-funded benefits through electronic benefits transfer (EBT) before the millennium. The numbers that would be affected are quite striking. Over $111 billion each year is transferred to 31 million "unbanked" recipients of 12 government programs. The goal is to provide one user-friendly card that bestows the unified delivery of government-funded benefits; incremental process is being made. Today, 23 states permit