If you have a smartphone that you bought in the last few years, it almost certainly has NFC capability.
The technology allows users to effortlessly transfer money, exchange files and knock out a growing list of other tasks. But the transmission of that data can create vulnerabilities. The BBB has tips on what NFCs can do and how to stay safe when using them. But first…
What exactly is NFC?
NFC means Near field communication. It is a data transfer that only works over a very short physical range. We’re talking inches, not feet. Some forms of this technology require you to touch one device to another or move them back and forth nearby.
NFCs are based on RFID (radio frequency identification) technology, a process that uses radio frequencies to identify objects. Near Field Communication is a high frequency RFID that facilitates communication from one device to another.
What does it do?
Near Field Communication uses a number of protocols to make transactions easier and faster. People use them to make contactless payments, share digital content, connect one device to another, and a list of other tasks that make their day longer.
How do they work?
NFC relies on proximity, so when users approach the device they want to communicate with, they’re usually prompted to ask for permission. They follow the screen prompts from there. It’s convenient because it doesn’t involve downloading an app or registering to get started.
When you activate some NFC technologies, they turn on Bluetooth and use it to transfer your data. That means you won’t have to fumble with your phone to find Bluetooth settings, select the device you want to pair, enter a passcode or passcode, and more.
Other NFC technologies allow Wi-Fi between two devices so they can “talk” back and forth. The big advantage here is that Wi-Fi Direct has much higher bandwidth, so large files transfer faster.
What smartphones come with NFC?
New handheld devices are becoming available all the time, so the list of compatible devices is constantly changing. NFCWorld maintains an exhaustive list of phones and tablets available now and coming soon. But for most people, their cell phone is already capable. Android devices running version 4.0 or later have the ability to use NFC for financial transactions. Phones with Android 4.4 or later allow users to exchange files and messages using NFC. The iPhone should have jumped on the bandwagon a little later. However, if you have an iPhone 6 or later, it supports Near Field Communications.
Are they only for financial transactions?
The possibilities and uses of near-field communication are, for the most part, only limited by the imagination. Here are just a few things people can already do with them:
- Open the car doors
- Share contact information
- Share any links you plan to have it
- Make wireless payments using smartphones and tablets
- Set up automatic Wi-Fi/Bluetooth pairing between phone and car for hands-free driving
- Pay and get access to public parking and transportation
- Send photos or videos between digital cameras, mobile phones and media players
- Allow shoppers to receive and redeem coupons
- Avoid rough sleepers turning off their alarm until they are actually awake
- Enable healthcare providers to monitor medications and monitor physical symptoms
- Create interactive toys and games
Simplified connectivity is great, and being able to exchange funds without digging into our wallets was becoming popular even before social distancing. Now it’s even more useful because it means we don’t have to touch cash or transaction terminals. But every time a technology becomes widely adopted, hackers begin to focus on how they can use it for unfair gain.
Near Field Communications and Cyber Security
Convenience is great, but if you’re like most people, you may realize that when data is just floating around, there’s a security risk, especially when the technology is tied to your credit card or bank account. So how risky is NFC technology?
The good thing is that if you’re whipping out your phone to a friend to share music or check in with a trusted vendor, the security risk is pretty low because of the proximity requirement. The devices must be four centimeters or less apart, and the data transfer actually happens in seconds, making it difficult for a hacker to get in without you noticing.
It takes more than just a collision to make a deal happen. both the sending and receiving devices must be ready to accept the data transfer. It will be difficult for hackers to brush against you in the crowd and wirelessly siphon off your bank account. You’re unlikely to run into a stranger at the grocery store and accidentally send all your personal information to their phone. But that doesn’t mean NFCs are without risk.
A problem arises when people lose their phones or have their devices stolen. If a thief can unlock your device, or if you don’t secure it with a strong password, there’s nothing stopping them from waving it over a payment terminal or ATM to get your money.
NFC tags are also vulnerable to counterfeiting. For example, users tapped smart tags thinking they were going to access movie trailers or visit a merchant’s website, but instead sent their personal information to a bad actor.
7 NFC Security Tips
Keep your data safe by taking these precautions:
- Password protects your mobile device
- Enable two-factor authentication for all money transactions
- Before downloading apps, read the data usage policies to make sure they protect your privacy
- Update installed apps regularly
- Turn off your NFC when not in use (for Android devices, this is under settings. For iPhone, NFC is turned off in individual apps)
- Update your device as required to receive security patches and firmware updates
- Use Near Field Communications only with vendors and individuals you know to be trustworthy
Source: BBB.org & BBB Serving Central East Texas
Have you heard of or experienced an NFC-related scheme or scam? You can help spread awareness and protect others when you report it to the BBB Scam Tracker. Visit bbb.org to find trusted businesses.
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