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Wireless Security

Will Near Field Communication Change the World?

Will Near Field Communication Change the World?
January 6, 2013 10:31AM

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As tech titans and tech enthusiasts gather in Las Vegas this week at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), there will be lots of talk about NFC or near field communication technology and how it could change the way we live and work, replacing plastic credit cards in today's smartphone-enabled world, thanks to NFC being so much more secure.

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Proponents say that near field communication (NFC) technology will change the world. With a simple tap of your mobile phone you'll be able to pay for things, download information from posters, and open doors.

Many tech pundits, however, are skeptical about NFC. Some say there are better ways to do the same things. Others think NFC has a critical mass problem: Retailers won't invest in NFC infrastructure until everyone has NFC handsets, and manufacturers won't make NFC a standard feature on handsets until NFC infrastructure becomes ubiquitous.

The skeptics are mistaken. Retail businesses will flock to NFC once they see that it speeds checkout and creates new opportunities for interacting with customers. Consumers will warm to NFC when they discover that its tap-and-go operation is simple, convenient, and puts them in control.

New technologies don't succeed just because they promise unique capabilities or superior performance. The first customers must contend with high prices, a steep learning curve, and market inertia. But new technologies do succeed provided that they deliver qualitative advantages. NFC passes this test.

A Game Changer

NFC is a wireless security game-changer. NFC is as close to a cable connection as you can get with wireless. Though NFC operates at radio frequencies it communicates via the near field effect (also known as magnetic induction). Put another way, NFC antennas are designed to suppress the radio signal, leaving just the near field signal. If NFC's short range were merely due to the use of low power transmitters, then it could still be hacked from further away using sophisticated equipment. However, NFC's range is only 4 -- 20 centimeters because near field signals die out quickly as you move away from the antenna.

Ironically, NFC's exceptional physical layer security gives device manufacturers the confidence to make its default setting "on." As security specialist Charlie Miller demonstrated at a recent Black Hat conference, a hacker could surreptitiously connect to an NFC phone while brushing past its owner. What this means in practice is that a hacker has a better chance of tricking an NFC phone into visiting a malicious Web site when the user isn't looking than intercepting an NFC payment. However, such attacks can be thwarted by quarantining data until approved by the user, adding a button that must be depressed when using NFC, or doing a better job detecting software exploits.

NFC's superior physical layer security can be leveraged to securely "pair" Bluetooth and Wi-Fi Direct devices. This is a critical application because once two devices have been paired they will automatically connect whenever they come within range of each other. If the pairing is performed exclusively via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, then a rogue device impersonating one of the devices could hijack the process. Adding NFC makes "man-in-the-middle" attacks much harder to pull off because the pairing is done in a different part of the radio spectrum using a much shorter range wireless technology. (continued...)

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