NFC: future possibilities and considerations

NFC or Near-field communications is becoming something of a buzz word in the mobile communications world. But what it is about? This article tries to answer the question.

Have you seen recently how many different cards you are carrying with you – credit cards, library and gym cards, your office access card, your transportation card, your international student identification card, and your various loyalty cards – from a football team to your Starbucks card? They are either all in your wallet or in the house somewhere. On the other hand, the thing that is always with you is your mobile phone. Probably you even go to the restroom with it to check your email or something. Imagine if there was a way to combine those various cards with your mobile.

Well, there is a technology that actually puts all those cards and more directly in your phone and it is called Near Field Communication.

Before we begin with what exactly NFC encompasses, you can consider NFC through its predecessors like barcodes – which acts as a visual representation of data. Recently, QR codes became increasingly popular to transmit various types of information – from web addresses, business cards, etc.  Both barcodes, as well as QR codes are very cheap to produce – you need a piece of paper to print it.

RFID on the other hand is more expensive. It uses radio waves in order to exchange data between reader and a tag, which usually consists of information about an object. RFID tags consist actually of small integrated circuits. Those RFID tags can be passive and active tags. The difference between them is that passive tags have no internal power supply and need to be powered by incoming signal, while active ones do have internal power supply.

But what is NFC?

In 2002 Phillips Semiconductor Operations (now NXP technologies) and Sony started developing NFC technologies. Those companies, along with Nokia in 2004 founded the NFC Forum, which objective is to advance the use of NFC in mobile devices, consumer electronics, and PCs.

Nowadays, there are several standardization bodies: NFC Forum, which goal is to promote NFC usage, develop specifications for NFC, providing interoperability and educating the market about the NFC technology.

Actually NFC is not new type of technology, rather a variation of RFID technology, which has been around for years. NFC is short-range high frequency wireless communication technology that enables the exchange of data between devices in very short distances (not more than 4cm), especially important when it comes to payments and access methods.

As of now NFC operates at low speed (106 to 414 kbps) with low friction. In other words, two NFC devices start their communication the minute they are touched – no need for discovery and pairing as it is in Bluetooth. But user awareness is a condition to perform NFC.

NFC – devices and modes

What is important to know is that there are three types of NFC devices with various combinations available for interaction:

  1. NFC mobile phone – many mobile phones currently offer NFC to exchange data, or pay/access services or information
  2. Reader – NFC reader is an active device and can be external or internal. Internal reader can be integrated for example in a NFC mobile device.
  3. NFC Tag – the tag is passive and needs to be powered by a NFC device in order to transfer information. NFC tags are not limited by the type of data, only by its size. There are four types of tags: Type 1, Type 2, Type 3, Type 4.

Those devices can have a passive or active mode of operation. What that means is that active mode is when active the device has internal power supply, while the passive device has no internal power and is powered up by the reader, which generates RF field.

The communication types of the devices generally are the following NFC operational modes: “reader/writer”, “peer-to-peer” and “card emulation”:

  • Reader/writer mode – one NFC device exchanges data with a NFC tag. This can be used for boarding passes, tickets, or in advertising – allowing consumers to scan a tag from a poster/device/place and get information on the subject of interest.
  • Peer-to-peer mode – two NFC enabled devices can exchange any type of data between each other.
  • Card emulation – in this mode, user interacts with a NFC reader and her NFC enable phone can act as a smart card/s. Google Wallet can be given as one of the most famous examples.  Another important feature of card emulation is the ability to provide access control.

The data container format to use for NFC is NDEF and in stands for NFC Data Exchange Format. It is designed to work on all different types of platforms/technologies, interact with devices and have a common data structure.  NDEF is binary format and encapsulates one or more application-defined payloads of arbitrary type and size into a single message. An NDEF message is composed of one or more NDEF records [1].

NFC Implementation

So far NFC implementation has not been widespread. One of the key points so far is the issue of compatibility for payment and data communication. For NFC devices need to communicate with no additional hassle for the user with various types of NFC transmissions for the implementation of NFC to be successful.

And this proves somewhat hard because most of the companies involved in the development of NFC are big businesses, with their own vision of the specific NFC infrastructure and the NFC usage models.

A look at the main stakeholders can shed a light at how many various interests are at stake. 

The major stakeholders currently are: mobile network operators, banking/payment companies, electronic appliances makers, software developers, and other sectors such as transportation, retailers, advertising, etc. The NFC technology covers many sectors and cannot be provided by a single entity.

Peterson for example explains that with various players in the NFC market, the question of customer ownership will become pivotal. With handset makers, software and payment service providers, mobile retailers all fighting for the customers.

Currently most Android devices have NFC capabilities and are using the Android Beam technology, which allows for simple peer-to-peer data exchange between two Android-powered devices. All users need to do to start the communication is to get the backs of the devices close together and tap on one of the device to send data. Currently you can use NFC feature of your android phone to send contacts, transfer the browsing page to the other phone, use it with youtube and play games.

Windows also announced this summer that they are developing a wallet for their Windows 8 phones.

In contrast, Apple has not provided NFC capabilities as of yet, but recent rumors about the new iphone stipulate that NFC will be included in iphone. Engadget had reported that Apple was granted a patent for NFC-ready shopping app – which is for “on-the-go shopping list” app. however the NFC is not used as a payment tool, according to the materials, but instead as a way for people to compare prices through touching or scanning the desired product.

On the other hand, on Cultofmac.com, John Brownlee in “Why Apple’s iWallet Won’t Have Anything To Do With NFC” argued the position that Apple will not be incorporating NFC technology in their upcoming iPhones, but instead will use Bluetooth 4.0, which it was deploying since iPhone 4S, to be used with Apple’s devices and possibly an iWallet. After all he says, NFC requires special TOS terminals, while with Bluetooth 4.0 the consumer only needs an Apple device.

But if the new iPhone really has NFC capabilities, it will drive the adoption of contactless payment technology further.

Concerns

Dependability is a major concern for retailers. All stakeholders want the technology to function easily and as required. Another obstacle for implementation is the cost of deployment – there are still limited numbers of merchants that accept contactless payment.

If you are wondering how you can recognize which store/business uses NFC technologies in some way, you can search for the “N-Mark” – the trademark which is symbol for NFC.

When thinking about the NFC adoption, we should take into account the security risks.

Security Risks

NFC is becoming exciting target for hackers due to the fact that it is still an emerging technology, mobile phones are increasingly becoming inseparable part of our daily life, which means that we are accessing more and more services and places through them, which is incredible ground for hackers.

Some of the risks involved are data security risks and data corruption. Here is a short list of risks:

  • Tag cloning – attackers may clone or copy existing tag
  • Tag content modification – attackers may try to change the content of a tag through:
  • Spoofing attacks – providing false information to the user, which seems legitimate
  • Tag replacement – attackers replace the original tag with a new one which performs illegal actions.
  • Eavesdropping – attacker uses antenna to record communication between NFC devices. Here the attack range is limited due to the close interaction range between two NFC devices. The operational mode of the devices – whether they are emitting their own RF field can be significant for establishing the range.
  • Data modification – attacker may try to intercept the data and modify the information.
  • Data insertion – additional data may be inserted during the communication
  • Removal or destruction of NFC readers – a stolen NFC reader can provide valuable cryptographic information to the attacker, not to mention the possibility for the reader manipulation for access not only to devices but backend systems
  • Replay attacks – the attacker intercepts valid NFC signal, records it and later it is transmitted to the reader afterward.
  • Middleware and Backend attacks – the complete NFC ecosystem includes not only NFC devices, tags and readers but servers to store data, authentication systems and more. Therefore, organizations should implement a security plan for possible back-end attacks as well.
  • Major question is of what happens when a person decides to change their phone. This is important because of the type of Security element that is used: whether it is through the SIM card, through SDM card, or OTA (over the air) technology.

The security issues need to be accounted from all possible sides of the ecosystem.

Benefits

NFC is very useful technology because it can receive and transmit data simultaneously, function as and read contactless cards and passive tags, but most importantly it can exchange various types of data. NFC technology has the ability to bring new business models and processes and create many innovative services in areas such as payment, retailing, healthcare, transportation. Here are some possible uses of NFC technology.

  • Payment cards – make payments with a wave or a touch where contactless card point-of-sale (POS) readers are available
  • Tickets – NFC devices can be implemented for ticketing purposes in many ways: for transportation services – ground and air, to gain access to events – theater, museums, music events, etc.
  • Smart posters – the idea is along with the poster, the NFC to provide additional information about event/advertising/etc. The NFC tag can contain information to be read later, or to trigger an application in the device to accomplish an action – see a website, send text messages.
  • Contextual Social Networking – by touching a NFC tag, a user can trigger a social networking message – where the person is checking-in, what is she doing. It can serve as a way to update social networking statuses and provide additional information.
  • Location based services- through Tags reading, people can receive information about tourist attractions, guides, maps, transportation information, even information about historical sites.
  • Exchange information between NFC devices in peer-to-peer model. Here people can transfer contact information, start an application from one phone to the other, transfer pictures, even play games.
  • Access method – through card emulation, NFC devices can act as access card to work places, library, for membership purposes, hotel services, etc. Instead of carrying various cards – all those can be in your phone and through touching to a reader, you can gain access.
  • Daycare attendance tracking – imagine how much easier will be for teachers just to scan a child’s tag and record that he is present for the day. That tag though can have important information about the current state of the child – whether he has allergies from foods, is he sick. Parents can record as well important information for the teachers.
  • HealthCare – a patient can bring her entire health record on a NFC tag or phone, the doctor reads it and can access all the necessary information to treat the patient. Furthermore, the patient will keep her private information herself, removing middlemen from the health-care equation.

Conclusion

The implementation of NFC allows for increased mobility and decreased physical effort. It is going to help eliminate some of the physical objects and it is somewhat easy to implement. Of course when developing NFC technology, researchers need to account for the trade-off between cost, level of security and usability.

But when evaluating NFC usage, one should consider the capabilities, characteristics and roles of the stakeholders. Cultural differences when adopting NFC should be considered as well.  Important aspects of public policy, ethical and legal problems should be taken into account – taxation, trust, privacy issues.

 

Resources

Proximity mobile payments – 2009 

http://developer.android.com

http://www.elisa.com/on-elisa/140/130.00/18247/

Agrawal, Pankaj, S. Bhuraria. Near Field Communication. SETLabs Briefings. VOL 10. NO.1. 2012. Available at: http://www.infosys.com/infosys-labs/publications/Documents/winning-it.pdf#page=69

Krisi

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