It’s amazing how a little assignment at work can turn into a science project! As a sort of “jack-of-all-trades” at a small company, the job of outfitting our newly leased office space fell to me. Even though we’re just starting out, my boss is completely paranoid about our technology being hijacked, so security’s been a big issue. Obviously our tech guys took care of the computers, and I was stuck with securing our building. That’s when I got an education on magnetic card readers.

I had no idea how often these machines show up in everyday life. There are magnetic card readers at the gas station where you “pay at the pump”; the barista at Starbucks uses one to charge you for your latte; and the smiling gate agents at the airport use magnetic card readers to scan your airline tickets and make sure you’re on the right flight. And now, our fledgling business will have magnetic card readers at every door to make sure that only our employees have access to our building.

It’s pretty amazing technology – and all on such a small scale. I learned that our shiny new ID badges are encoded with around 100 bytes of information, all neatly packaged on those little black strips on the back, called “magstripes.” And there are universal rules that everyone — from Visa and MasterCard right down to the customer loyalty cards at the local CVS — has to follow.

All the cards have the exact same size magstripe, in the exact same position, and every stripe encodes three tracks of information. It just depends on how and why you use what that strip holds. The magnetic card readers on the doors of our building read the info that’s contained on the magstripe when we swipe our badges, and then one of two things happens: the door opens to let you in, or the alarm starts going off and the cops are at the door in a matter of minutes.

Shopping for ID badges and magnetic card readers is easy, thanks to the Internet. It’s easy to compare prices and features on all the top brands like ID Tech, Magtech and Pos-X. I even found a company that shipped our magnetic card readers for free, and then hooked us up with a local affiliate to install our system. Now that the system’s set up and working like a charm, the boss thinks I’m a genius. And I can spout high-tech talk about our new security system almost as fluently as our computer guys!