A technology rooted in commerce
By Tom Duong and Tony Swyryt, with Chris Penido
Near field communication (NFC) is a radio communication technology that allows mobile devices, credit cards, and many other devices to transmit data with relative speed and convenience. When two NFC devices are in close proximity, they can be used in a variety of ways – from buying a cup of coffee to sharing a playlist with friends. Over the last couple of years, there has been an explosion in the use of NFC technology. Read on for an overview of the current and possible future state of this developing technology
With the recent proliferation of NFC devices, many people believe the technology is a new development. In fact, it is a variation of other short-range wireless technologies that have been in use for many years around the world.
In the United States, NFC technology has been around for decades and is used in many consumer products made in the last ten years. In 1997, Exxon Mobil released Speedpass, a small device that allowed gas buyers to charge their credit card by waving a tiny “fob” key in front of a small reader. Some years later, Visa adopted payWave, a similar contactless payment system, which is now present in many new credit and debit cards. NFC is planned for use in mobile phones for payment, among other things, in conjunction with an electronic wallet service, such as Google Wallet.
In addition to conducting transactions, NFC technology is being used more frequently as a quick method to share files. You may have seen commercials for new cell phones that show friends and coworkers effortlessly sending each other music or documents. Using NFC technology, phones like the Samsung Galaxy S III communicate over a short range radio frequency, connect using a digital handshake, and then exchange data.
This increasingly popular form of data transfer has led to the use of “NFC tags”—programmable stickers that transfer data, software, files, or even configuration settings to an NFC device. Such tags may one day be a common sight in our daily lives—including university campuses. For example, it’s conceivable that you might one day be able to touch your phone against an NFC tag to automatically configure your NYU E-mail account on your phone. Some institutions have even begun experimenting with NFC-enabled devices to perform functions that are currently achieved with ID cards. Though likely several years away from mainstream use, such a development would certainly be convenient for students, who might be more likely to leave their ID at home than their smartphone.
NFC technology is particularly well suited for use in the healthcare industry. Not only can NFC tags provide medical professionals with basic information about the identity and allergies of a patient, but they can also keep track of more advanced information, such as which nurses and doctors have checked in with the patient, and when the patient was given medicine. Each time the tag is scanned, the information about who scanned it and when can be transferred to a database.
You may have seen news reports about people having their credit card information or personal data stolen using NFC technology, or advertisements touting wallets that claim to disrupt the use of this technology. Security vulnerabilities have been demonstrated using tools available to consumers, where data has been surreptitiously extracted or loaded onto NFC-enabled devices. That said, because NFC has not been widely adopted in the U.S., there are few reported examples of criminals taking advantage of these vulnerabilities. In the U.S., it is much more commonplace for credit card or passport information to be stolen in physical thefts than using NFC-enabled devices.
Still, NFC users should be aware of the potential for fraud and take precautions as NFC tags become more ubiquitous. People with bad intentions will try to find ways to break the system, perhaps by misrepresenting the purpose of an NFC tag or by hacking legitimate tags and inserting malicious code. To safeguard your data, do not allow connections with tags that are not physically protected behind glass or plastic, monitor your phone after tagging to see what information it requests, opt for using NFC-blocking smartphone cases, and look out for unwanted or suspicious prompts. The only way to completely mitigate against unwanted connections is to disable NFC services on your mobile device when not in use (you’ll also save some battery life).
Security concerns about NFC technology will likely linger in its nascent state. But just like the concerns over Bluetooth and WiFi, the security of NFC technology will ultimately be determined by the rigors associated with widespread adoption and use. As with all technology, users want to have a simple, positive experience that will add value to the services they use, and NFC technology holds a lot of promise in that realm. Once NFC technology has reached maturity, you may see NYU using it to help simplify meal plans, bookstore purchases, building access, and even some classroom activities. Until then, try to remember your NYUCard!