It’s an essential part of your receiver… but it just looks like a credit card with a gold patch. So what’s the deal? The access card forms one-third of the system used to decrypt your satellite signal. By putting one part on your hard drive, one part on a computer chip on the receiver, and one part on the access card, it makes it just that much harder to crack the encryption.
It’s like those car keys with a computer chip. You can’t start the car without them even if you hotwire it.
Also, the access card can be changed as needed. If someone cracks the encryption, which may have happened before (no one’s willing to say) then issuing new access cards with more secure logic in them can make the encryption safe again. Plus, with the use of an access card, a receiver can be added or removed from a customer account as needed.
The access card in your receiver is property of the satellite company, just like the rest of the receiver, and must be returned upon request. The access card will only work in your receiver; you can’t bring it to a friend’s house and have your DIRECTV or DISH programming on their receiver, unless…
Your intrepid author has never seen one of these, but his high level sources tell him that there are access cards, called Engineering cards, that let any DIRECTV receiver get any program. Other local channels, porn, what have you; if you have one of these magic cards, you’re set. The only thing is… there are maybe half a dozen of these cards in existence (no one will confirm the exact number) and they are kept in bank-vault-type safes at engineering labs all over the country. It takes a high company security clearance to get your hands on one, and there are rules about smuggling one out of the building… in other words, you don’t do it, and your life, job, and friends stay secure.
The Engineering card is more than an urban legend, it’s a verifiable fact, but it’s unlikely you’ll ever see one. On the other hand, it doesn’t take much to see an access card. Just, you know, don’t take it out of the receiver if you don’t have to; they’re fragile.