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What Are Magnetic Stripes?


magnetic stripe Magnetic stripe technology has been around for 40+ years, and more magnetic stripe cards are produced today than ever before. However, there is still widespread misunderstanding about magnetic stripes and their role in bank and gift card transactions.

Magnetic stripes are thin layers of ferrous oxide applied to the surface of the card. Each oxide particle has a magnetic north and magnetic south pole. When first applied to the surface of the card, the arrangement of these particles is totally random, the stripe is magnetically neutral and is said to be “un-encoded” or blank. To add information to the magnetic stripe, the oxide particles are forced to align with their magnetic poles in the same direction. By periodically reversing the direction of the alignment this “encoding” creates a pattern of transitions between north south magnetic fields. It is these transitions that are read and interpreted as data.

magnetic stripe signal

With data security being on everyone’s mind these days, it should be noted that magnetic stripes were never intended as security devices. Magnetic stripes only ensure the speed and accuracy of the information entered into a system. Imagine the problems if a clerk keystroked a number to activate a gift card, and entered the wrong number. The mistake could activate an unsold card and fail to activate the sold card. Magnetic stripes ensure that this cannot happen; when a card is swiped the stripes will ALWAYS return the correct information or none at all. Magnetic stripes are, in essence, magnetic barcodes, nothing more. They are encoded with information only once, usually a series of numbers. When the information on the stripe is accessed by swiping, the stripe is not altered in any way, it is only read. Magnetic stripes are not used to collect data, only to send the same data over and over very efficiently. There is no truth to the rumor that hotel key cards collect information about you on the mag stripe.

Magnetic stripes may be old technology, but they still have a place in today’s world.   |  651.686.0660

Kayla Latterell
ABOUT THE AUTHOR | Kayla Latterell
Graphic Designer
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