Smart card readers for the iPhone and iPad

Flexible PKard Reader and elegant Tactivo bring smart card authentication to your favorite mobile device

BYOD becomes a bit more complicated when you work in an environment that requires stronger forms of authentication than a username and password combination. A close inspection of the iPhone or iPad reveals neither a fingerprint sensor nor a smart card reader, for example. Fortunately, vendors such as Thursby Software and Precise Biometrics have rushed in to fill the void.

Thursby Software's PKard Reader and Precise Biometrics' Tactivo support the major standard smart card formats including the CAC (Common Access Card) used by the U.S. military and DOD (Department of Defense). I tested the products by using an iPhone 4S and an iPad 2, both running iOS 6.1, to access a number of military and DOD websites that require CAC authentication.

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Until the PKard Reader and Tactivo devices arrived for the iPhone and iPad, military and DOD personnel had to use either a PC or Mac to remotely access CAC-secured sites, even for Webmail, travel, and unclassified administrative tasks. As prices fall, these workers will be sorely tempted to buy one of these readers -- and so will many iPhone and iPad users in private sector companies that require smart card authentication.

Common capabilities and limitationsThursby's PKard Reader and Precise Biometrics' Tactivo worked as advertised, allowing me to successfully check email on both the Navy Marine Corps Email and the Army Email AKO sites.

Note, however, that the Safari browser on the iPhone and iPad does not support smart card authentication. In order to facilitate browsing of websites that authenticate using smart cards or CACs, Thursby's PKard Reader and Precise Biometrics' Tactivo both include Thursby's free PKard Reader app. (Military and DOD and government personnel will like that the PKard Reader app lets you bookmark commonly used CAC-required sites, organized in service favorite folders such as Navy Sites, Army Sites, Air Force Sites, DOD Sites, Marine Corps Sites, Coast Guard, and Federal Government.)

It can be difficult to use Webmail on the iPhone (less so on the iPad) due to the limited screen real estate. It would be preferable to use the regular email app, but this is not an option provided by the DOD today, as it would require the DOD to provide a VPN mail service server. While the PKard Reader and Tactivo devices are capable of supporting direct access to mail servers, I was only able to test access to Webmail in my environment. Potential buyers in the military and government should be aware they'll be restricted to using iOS-compatible Webmail and Web apps only.

All potential buyers should note that the PKard Reader app does not overcome other limitations of Apple's Safari browser. Smart card or CAC-secured websites that employ technologies such as Flash or Java that work fine on a full PC will not work on an iPhone or iPad -- with or without the PKard Reader app. The Defense Travel System (DTS) is an example of this limitation. DTS simply will not work due to the fact that its designers did not plan for iOS compatibility. For users of DOD websites, it's Webmail only and no mobile travel planning for now.

This of course is not the fault of the PKard Reader or Tactivo, but a limitation of iOS and the result of unfortunate website design decisions. DOD sites were designed for the PC, and they may be clunky to use on an iPhone or iPad. As the DOD gets onboard with mobile users surfing its websites, we can only hope that the websites will become less reliant on Flash and Java and more in tune with HTML5 and smaller screen sizes.

Another problem with the DOD's CAC-authenticated websites is that error messages are poor or nonexistent. Logging in to a website will require either the email certificate or the identity certificate. If you enter the wrong one, you will get a nondescript error such as "This page cannot be displayed." Your browser's cache will be corrupted. Refreshing the website will not work. You will have to restart the application and retry the URL, selecting the other certificate to get it to work. The problem is that some DOD websites use the identity certificate and others use the email certificate. If you choose the wrong one, you have to kill the application and try again. Again, it's not the fault of the PKard Reader or Tactivo -- it's just bad DOD design.

Tactivo: More elegant, less flexiblePrecise Biometrics' Tactivo is designed as a case for the iPhone or iPad, so there are separate models for each. It is very stylish and fits both iOS devices like a glove. The smart card or CAC slides unobtrusively behind the iPad and iPhone, making for comfortable use. The big advantage of the Tactivo, besides its less obtrusive form factor, is its fingerprint reader, which you could use with several free apps to protect files, photos, and passwords with fingerprint authentication. There's also a software development kit you can use to take advantage of this biometric security protection for various authentication applications.

There are a couple of downsides to the Tactivo. First, if you use both an iPad and an iPhone, you'll need to buy two Tactivo devices. Second, the Tactivo is currently available only for the older iPhone 4/4S and iPad models with the 30-pin connector. Precise Biometrics expects to have Lightning-compatible versions of the Tactivo for the iPhone 5 and new iPad models soon. Given that the Tactivo is an enclosure, the Apple Lightning to 30-pin Adapter of course will not work. If you eventually upgrade from an old 30-pin iPhone or iPad to a new Lightning-equipped iPhone or iPad, you'll need to buy a new Tactivo as well.

The Tactivo for the 30-pin iPhone retails for $249, and the Tactivo for the 30-pin iPad retails for $299. A video demo of the Tactivo product can be found on YouTube.

PKard Reader: Less elegant, more flexibleThursby's PKard Reader is not as stylish as the Tactivo, nor does it include a fingerprint reader. But unlike the Tactivo, the PKard Reader has the ability to work on both the iPhone and iPad. It's currently available for the 30-pin models, but also works with Apple's Lightning to 30-pin Adapter to connect to the newer iPhones and iPads. (Thursby plans to sell a Lightning version of the PKard Reader in the future.)

The PKard Reader is not as easy to handle as the Tactivo, as both the card reader and the smart card hang from the bottom of the iPhone or iPad. I was afraid that if I wasn't careful, I could damage the reader by accidently breaking it off. With the Tactivo, I felt much more comfortable using my iPhone with one hand. With the PKard Reader, I was definitely using two hands. Plus, the PKard Reader is yet another accessory to remember and carry with you. All that said, the PKard Reader is quite usable -- and the same reader works with your iPhone or iPad.

The 30-pin version of the PKard Reader retails for $149.99 in black or white. For an additional $10, Thursby will sell you a Lightning adapter. A video demo of the PKard Reader is also available.

Which smart card reader should you buy? I would give a slight edge to Thursby's PKard Reader, mainly because of the price. Although the Tactivo is easier to use and includes the fingerprint reader, it's too expensive for my taste -- especially considering you have to buy two different models for the iPhone and the iPad. Paying $249 for the iPhone version and $299 for the iPad version is a lot of money. If you really want both the fingerprint reader and the smart card reader, and money is no object (say, your boss is paying for it), get the Tactivo. Overall, though, the $149.99 PKard Reader is a better value, as it can work with any iOS device for roughly half the cost.

Whether you choose the PKard Reader or the Tactivo, you get a solid smart card reader that brings effective two-factor authentication to your iOS device.

This article, "Review: Smart card readers for the iPhone and iPad," was originally published at Follow the latest developments in mobile technology at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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