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Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have developed smart credit cards with embedded microchips. What's new about is a technique which lets ordinary card users program in their own spending parameters.

Just imagine: employers could better manage spending on corporate cards, while parents could create emergency credit cards for their children, to be used only at certain locations such as hotels or pay phones.

Banks and other card issuers have long been able to set general parameters in chip cards, such as credit limits. So far, there has been little interest in setting finer limits because the procedure is awkward and expensive to manage. But not anymore, according to Penn scientist Carl Gunter, who presented this work at the recent conference on Object-Oriented Programming in Darmstadt, Germany.

The programmable card brings together an assortment of existing technologies, including the microchips first built into credit cards more than 30 years ago.

An on-card verification system prevents unauthorised users from tampering with restrictions programmed in by the card's rightful owner, while an ordinary card-reader plugs into a computer dock, allowing users to create restrictions.

Programmable credit cards could let cardholders limit their own expenditures, to a certain amount a day or to spending only on certain days or at certain locations. The technology could also help cut fraudulent online use of credit cards, Penn scientists believe.

So, will your bank offer these cards tomorrow? No, you need to wait. Penn says it seeking corporate partners to commercialise the technology. ®

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