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What is the deal with NFC technology and the security behind it?

Posted by Cam Green on Wed, Sep 26, 2012

nfc_technologyNFC Technology: Near-Field-Communications is a set of short-range wireless technologies, typically requiring a distance of 4cm or less. NFC operates at 13.56 MHz and at rates ranging from 106 kbit/s to 848 kbit/s.

 Unless you have been living under a rock, I am sure that you have seen the “next big thing is here” commercials from Samsung (the ones that mock Apple’s iPhone.) Samsung and Apple have been at each other’s throats since the original 2011 lawsuit and counter lawsuit.  As you know, Apple just released its iPhone 5. But what you may not know is that the iPhone 5 was released without the much anticipated NFC technology. This is because the iPhone’s all-aluminum-and-glass body would block information from being transmitted to a terminal,

according to Will Strauss, and analyst of Forward Concepts, a research firm that follows digital signal processing and chips. Bummer for them, because an Airline tech chief expected the iPhone 5 to dominate e-tickets. So this is why you are seeing the heavy marketing for Samsung towards NFC technology, since it’s the main advantage its phones have over iPhones.

So what is the deal with this NFC technology? Is it truly the next big thing? Well, it certainly has its believers. Along with Samsung; HTC, LG, and Sony have all produced NFC enabled phones recently. There are NFC enabled posters popping up around big cities where you can download free music, coupons, or like someone on Facebook by just tapping it with your phone. Opening in October is the world’s first NFC-enabled supermarket where customers can scan tags on shelves to not only get information about the product they are buying, but put it in a virtual shopping cart.  To checkout, the customer would just need to tap their phone to the reader attached to the retailer’s cash register.

If you have heard of the term digital wallet (or e-wallet), it is most likely referring to NFC technology. So you can store your cash virtually on your cell phone for easy transfers. I believe that this is the big future of NFC technology. But is it safe to have your money stored on your everyday cell phone, available to make easy transactions at any moment?

NFC technology is still in its early, beginning stages, and it can be hacked fairly simply. There have been reports of subway riders getting free fares across the USA from their NFC enabled phone. The phone had an app called UltraReset downloaded on it that lets travelers read a NFC Paymentfare card’s balance and write the stored data back to the card. It would reset the balance to get more free rides. The hackers who created it put a different version on the Google Play market called UltraCardTester, which would let the transit people know that their system is insecure.

At the Mobile Pwn2Own competition in Amsterdam, hackers demonstrated it was possible to beam a file to another phone using NFC. The phone receiving the file HAS to download it (which could be an issue in itself). After opening the file, all information on that phone was downloaded by the hackers/researchers, which included texts, pictures, contacts, and emails. So by placing a phone a few centimeters away from another and pressing the send button, a phone could send a malicious file, and the file is downloaded automatically by the other phone. That doesn’t sound very safe. To get that close, the hacker would only need to bump into you, and your information is theirs. 

Another hacker conference, this one in Las Vegas called Black Hat proved another hack successful. Similar to the Mobile Pwn2Own hack, the idea was to force the phone to the malicious content. This time, the hackers sent a website to the phone that was already attached with software designed to compromise phones.

In a more direct concerning example, Google recently created the new ‘Google Wallet’ mobile payment system. But there is a huge issue; they were able to create a hack called the Wallet Cracker app that works perfectly.  The program exposes the pin number of a Google Wallet account in just seconds.

A totally digital, wallet free payment system is on the way for the future, but it clearly has its bugs in the present. It is not yet safe and ready to enter the market, but it is relieving to see companies working on the issue. This gives us a bit of a forecast into the future: NFC technology is on its way. But whether or not NFC catches on in the next year or so, will largely determine if the next iPhone has it. Apple has been very good with their ability to evaluate the market, and only time will tell if their decision to not put NFC in their phones will come back to haunt them. A company that has consistently been known as the innovator over the last 10 years has taken a back seat to Samsung on this one. As Samsung is saying indirectly through their ads; your move Apple, your move.

Tags: Social Media, New Technology, Data Security

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