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Java Card is a software technology that allows Java-based applications (applets) to be run securely on smart cards and more generally on similar secure small memory footprint deviceswhich are called “secure elements” (SE). Today, a Secure Element is not limited to its smart cards and other removable cryptographic tokens form factors; embedded SEs soldered onto a device board and new security designs embedded into general purpose chips are also widely used. Java Card addresses this hardware fragmentation and specificities while retaining code portability brought forward by Java.
Java Card is the tiniest of Java platforms targeted for embedded devices. Java Card gives the user the ability to program the devices and make them application specific. It is widely used in different markets: wireless telecommunications within SIM cards and embedded SIM, payment within banking cards and NFC mobile payment and for identity cards, healthcare cards, and passports. Several IoT products like gateways are also using Java Card based products to secure communications with a cloud service for instance.
The first Java Card was introduced in 1996 by Schlumberger's card division which later merged with Gemplus to form Gemalto. Java Card products are based on the specifications by Sun Microsystems (later a subsidiary of Oracle Corporation). Many Java card products also rely on the GlobalPlatform specifications for the secure management of applications on the card (download, installation, personalization, deletion).
The main design goals of the Java Card technology are portability, security and backward compatibility.
Java Card aims at defining a standard smart card computing environment allowing the same Java Card applet to run on different smart cards, much like a Java applet runs on different computers. As in Java, this is accomplished using the combination of a virtual machine (the Java Card Virtual Machine), and a well-defined runtime library, which largely abstracts the applet from differences between smart cards. Portability remains mitigated by issues of memory size, performance, and runtime support (e.g. for communication protocols or cryptographic algorithms).
Java Card technology was originally developed for the purpose of securing sensitive information stored on smart cards. Security is determined by various aspects of this technology:
At the language level, Java Card is a precise subset of Java: all language constructs of Java Card exist in Java and behave identically. This goes to the point that as part of a standard build cycle, a Java Card program is compiled into a Java class file by a Java compiler; the class file is post-processed by tools specific to the Java Card platform.
However, many Java language features are not supported by Java Card (in particular types char, double, float and long; the
transient qualifier; enums; arrays of more than one dimension; finalization; object cloning; threads). Further, some common features of Java are not provided at runtime by many actual smart cards (in particular type
int, which is the default type of a Java expression; and garbage collection of objects).
Java Card bytecode run by the Java Card Virtual Machine is a functional subset of Java 2 bytecode run by a standard Java Virtual Machine but with a different encoding to optimize for size. A Java Card applet thus typically uses less bytecode than the hypothetical Java applet obtained by compiling the same Java source code. This conserves memory, a necessity in resource constrained devices like smart cards. As a design tradeoff, there is no support for some Java language features (as mentioned above), and size limitations. Techniques exist for overcoming the size limitations, such as dividing the application's code into packages below the 64 KiB limit.
Standard Java Card class library and runtime support differs a lot from that in Java, and the common subset is minimal. For example, the Java Security Manager class is not supported in Java Card, where security policies are implemented by the Java Card Virtual Machine; and transients (non-persistent, fast RAM variables that can be class members) are supported via a Java Card class library, while they have native language support in Java.
The Java Card runtime and virtual machine also support features that are specific to the Java Card platform:
Coding techniques used in a practical Java Card program differ significantly from those used in a Java program. Still, that Java Card uses a precise subset of the Java language speeds up the learning curve, and enables using a Java environment to develop and debug a Java Card program (caveat: even if debugging occurs with Java bytecode, make sure that the class file fits the limitation of Java Card language by converting it to Java Card bytecode; and test in a real Java Card smart card early on to get an idea of the performance); further, one can run and debug both the Java Card code for the application to be embedded in a smart card, and a Java application that will be in the host using the smart card, all working jointly in the same environment.
Oracle has released several Java Card platform specifications and is providing SDK tools for application development. Usually smart card vendors implement just a subset of algorithms specified in Java Card platform target and the only way to discover what subset of specification is implemented is to test the card.
The version 3.0 of the Java Card specification (draft released in March 2008) is separated in two editions: the Classic Edition and the Connected Edition.
Java Card 3.1 is the latest Release of the Java Card Platform Specification and Development Kit (Released in January 2019).