Scientist Andrei Nuykin discusses microchips used in fare cards, fur coat tagging, and the digital economy

Scientist Andrei Nuykin discusses microchips used in fare cards, fur coat tagging, and the digital economy
Photo: Photo by the Mayor and Moscow Government Press Service. Yevgeny Samarin
Andrei Nuykin, the Moscow Government Young Scientist award winner in 2016, talks about microchips for electronic fare cards and biometric passports, the world's cleanest production, and national security.

Even people who are not very familiar with science, have at least held an electronic transport fare card, a bank card, or a biometric passport. What they have in common are the microchips developed at the special economic zone in Zelenograd.

For his contribution to this work, Andrei Nuykin, the deputy head at the integrated microchips development department at Mikron, received a Moscow Government award. The application submission process is currently underway for the Moscow Government Young Scientist award 2017. In an interview with mos.ru, Andrei Nuykin discusses information protection in biometric passports and whether public transit fare cards can be hacked.

Andrei Nuykin, winner of the Moscow Government Young Scientist Award 2016

Question: Tell us about the development you were awarded for.

Andrei Nuykin: It’s a set of microchips that are used in transport fare cards as well as in more advanced smart cards such as electronic medical policies, bank cards, and the new generation of electronic passports.

The main development is a group of crystals for public transit applications, access systems, and product tagging. If you take any domestic near-field connection (NFC) card, there is an 80 to 90 percent chance that it has a Russian-made crystal. We have developed a series of radio frequency microchips for 15 or 20 products that can be used in various areas.

I had applied for the award three years in a row and was pleasantly surprised to receive it, especially since the news of it almost coincided with the birth of the third child in our family. I am very grateful to the experts who appreciated my project, and to all those who helped me in my work.

Any development, even the smallest, is a result of team work rather than an individual achievement. Winning the award is first and foremost a confirmation of our achievements. (Applicants for the 2017 award can submit their projects to the Moscow Government Department of Science, Industrial Policy and Entrepreneurship at 22 Voznesensky Pereulok. The list of required paperwork is available at the молодыеученые.рф website.)

Over the last six to seven years, pretty much all electronic metro and other transit fare cards in Moscow use our crystal

Question: Why did you decide to submit this particular development to the contest?

Andrei Nuykin: I have been doing this for more than 10 years. In 1998, the Moscow Metro started converting from tokens and magnetic tickets to the NFC cards, that we currently use. Our company won the tender to produce these cards. Initially, we used foreign components, but later we were tasked to make everything using our own resources. And within two to three years we were able to design the very first crystal, which eventually successfully replaced the foreign one. Over the last six to seven years, and maybe more, almost all cards use our crystal.

Question: How do these crystals work?

Andrei Nuykin: An antenna is attached to the microchip crystal. When you hold it against the reader in the metro, the microchip’s antenna sends a signal. The crystal has a radio-frequency interface, which can process the commands and respond to the reader, and a memory. The ​​memory stores information used by the transit authority, including the date, the card’s validity, the number of trips or the remaining balance. This information is scanned from the crystal via the radio frequency interface.

When you move the card away, the signal transmission is discontinued, but the card will save the information for five to ten years, and you can use it any time. In other words, the microchip stores information on available funds, trips, and product tagging.

The metro fare card has a high level of protection against counterfeiting and it is almost impossible to hack

What’s especially good about this crystal-based system and the reason it supplants magnetic cards and bar codes is the fact that crystals are very difficult to fraudulently duplicate. To do that you would need access to the metro’s database and their protected keys. In other words, it’s almost impossible for an outsider to counterfeit these cards. Even if the card has been forged, the system will disable it within hours.

The microchips’ main benefits have to do with the fact that they can store information that can be recorded several times and they have a very high level of protection against forgery. The crystals used in bank cards, for example, are almost impossible to hack. As a rule, these kinds of cards are never hacked. What gets hacked is the system the card is used in.

Question: Smart cards are used in banking applications and biometric passports. How is personal information protected?

Andrei Nuykin: Crystals in biometric passports have a very high level of protection. The crystal hardware is designed to support a number of cryptographic algorithms. Special encrypted keys are used, and you would need access to the keys to decipher the information.
In theory, anything can be hacked. There are only a few specialised laboratories in the world that can assess the hacking resistance of crystals. Our smart card crystals are internationally certified, which attests to the high level of built-in protection. Without this certification, we wouldn’t be able to use them in bank cards.

Today, banking crystals are some of the best, if not the best protected crystals in the electronics industry. They are protected both at the hardware and software levels. So a hacker without special equipment worth several hundred thousand, or even millions of dollars won’t be able to extract the secret keys in a bank card.

We have one of the world's smallest crystals being used in transport applications

Question: What is the difference between your crystals and other Russian and foreign-made crystals?

Andrei Nuykin: There is nothing comparable in Russia. There are more advanced crystals and technology in the West, but our developments for public transit use fully match foreign technology, and some are even more cost competitive. We have some of the world’s smallest crystals for public transit applications.

Question: Are your products purchased abroad?

Andrei Nuykin: They are, although this is a mass market with very stiff competition, including from China and the US, because many countries support their producers. Still, we have been successfully selling our crystals both in the US and in East and Southeast Asia, including China and Korea. Of course, the volumes are not as large as in Russia, but we can certainly compete in foreign markets as well, both in terms of cost and the functional parameters. We do have international certificates to sell our products abroad. This is the main requirement of our foreign partners, which is why we have had our crystals assessed and certified for international markets at an Austrian laboratory.

Question: How are the chips for electronic fare cards made?

Andrei Nuykin: It is a fairly complex process. First of all, we use the world’s cleanest, silicon-based production.

On a substrate about 200 millimeters in diameter, a structure of 30 to 40 different layers is grown. The silicon substrate is used to form active transistor structures, passive resistor components, and diodes. The components are joined together in the upper metal layers. A small fare card crystal contains tens of thousands of components, mostly transistors.

We have been successfully selling our crystals in the US, China, and Korea

A smart card crystal can have as many as several million active components. In comparison with the crystals used for transport applications, the ones in passports have a lot more capacity on the silicon chip. The space ratio of these crystals is about one to 50. Crystals used in smart cards have a large amount of non-volatile memory and their own operating system. This microprocessor card, which includes special crypto-blocks, stores the protected data and delivers it through secure communication channels.

Our crystals are the only ones in Russia so far to have been granted first level integrated chip status.

Question: The Ministry of Industry and Trade has confirmed the status of a Russian-made first-level integrated microchip used in the Mir card. What does this mean?

Andrei Nuykin: It means that the chip has been fully developed in Russia, all the design and technological documentation is available in our country, and that it is has been fully manufactured with domestic equipment. But this is not just the Mir card. As far as I know, almost all the crystals that we have mass produced over the last two years have received this status. Our crystals are the only ones to have received this certification. This applies not only to the crystals used in the Mir card, but all the public transit card crystals currently in use, including the ones in the metro system.

Question: What is the significance of these developments for national security?

Andrei Nuykin: With respect to smart cards, they protect our payment systems and identification documents. When we use foreign crystals and foreign cryptography, we do not know whether there are any undocumented features, which could have been installed by the developer or some special services. This technology exists in almost all crystals. One day the crystal might stop working or some other flaw may come up that we would have no knowledge of.

So all the crystals used for government needs or in security systems must be based on domestic crypto algorithms. We are one of the few companies which have been able to meet this requirement at the hardware level, that is, at the level of the crystal. Others use software.

Question: What are you currently working on?

Andrei Nuykin: We are currently working on a very challenging project. The Moscow Government award was for short-range crystals with a scanning range of up to 10 centimetres. Two years ago a project was underway in Russia to create crystals for high-frequency tags (UHF-range). They have a scanning range of up to 30 metres. Fur coat tagging was the first large-scale government sponsored project in Russia that was based on this technology. The crystals for these tags are much more difficult to develop than conventional HF crystals.

High-frequency tags optimise logistics and inventory processes

In the West, they are working to replace all bar codes with high-frequency tags that can store information. This is mainly done to optimise the logistics and inventory processes. Using a scanner, a shop clerk or business owner can inventory goods in about 10 minutes by simply walking around the store.

The conventional inventory process assumes that a store is closed once a week or once a month for the whole day to allow the staff to count what they have on the shelves and see what’s run out. Today, a box filled with hundreds or thousands of clothing items passes through a special device at the warehouse, which reads the marks on the product. This happens automatically.

Question: Why fur coats?

Andrei Nuykin: This is a special product for Russia. Historically, we have imported lots of fur coats and we export a significant amount of fur-made products. After the introduction of mandatory tagging on all fur products, seven to nine times more fur coats went through the customs, if I’m not mistaken. Unofficial “grey” imports have practically disappeared.

In 10 to 20 years, high-frequency tags will replace the barcode

This technology will also extend to industrial goods, medicines and alcohol, which generate significant amounts of excise tax. Each year the cost of the tag is falling, but it is still rather high. In my opinion, an opinion shared by most Western experts, in 10 to 20 years the cost of these tags will drop so much that they will replace the barcode for most products.

Russian cities are gradually converting to RFID tags, which are used in documents and transport cards. Medical policies are already issued in the form of electronic cards. Passports will also be replaced with electronic ID cards. These programs have started, and in five to 10 years we will have electronic ID cards instead of the current paper passports.

Gradually, all paperwork will become electronic, which is more secure and enables automation throughout the entire process. Electronic documents and marking tags are elements of the digital economy of the future that has been discussed so much recently at the highest levels.