Have you been hearing a lot about NFC (Near Field Communication) technology lately? To a layman, this is just another technology, like ‘Super’ AMOLED, ‘Retina’ Display, ‘PureView’ camera, ‘multi-core’ processor, and probably you think this is another marketing gimmick to get the device sold at the end of the day. You may haven’t paid much attention to it either.
However, there is a group of people who are very optimistic about NFC. Let the myths be busted! Let me explain to you in simple terms what NFC is and what it does.
Well, that doesn’t sound so easy to understand, does it? In layman’s terms, with NFC, you can connect two devices (wirelessly) by tapping them together. That’s right! Just tap your phone to another and they have established an invisible link.
The prospective applications of this technology will astound you—with a tap of your smartphone you can pay for products and services, you can establish Wi-Fi connection with a router, you can get music and small videos transferred to your phone, you can exchange electronic business cards, you can travel in train or on air without your wallet, you can get movie tickets delivered to your phone, you can review restaurant menus and pay for meals, and much more.
Unlike ‘Super’ AMOLED or ‘Retina’ display, NFC is not a technology owned by a company. It’s a standard like Bluetooth or Wi-Fi that all manufacturers have to follow. Also, NFC is not a new technology; it is a mere extension of already existing wireless technologies, like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, RFID, GSM, etc. In order to create a common standard for all NFC based communication, Nokia, Sony, and Phillips came together in 2004 to create a forum—the NFC Forum.
It is in this forum that everything related to NFC is developed. Now, the forum has 160 members. They include industry heavyweights like Google, AT&T, Intel, Samsung, Microsoft, Toshiba, LG, MasterCard, Visa, American Express, HP, Fujitsu, HTC, Daimler, PayPal, Marvell Studios, and several others.
A lot of big and small technology companies are part of this deal—suspiciously enough Apple is missing! All of the companies out there that manufacture smartphones have come up with NFC-enabled smartphones. Apple iPhone still lacks this technology. And the latest news has confirmed it that Apple won’t be including NFC even in iPhone 5. It’s very sad that Apple wants to build its own mobile payment technology as they ‘feel that there is no common standard in mobile payment systems out there’.
The connectivity through NFC is available only in a very short range—shorter than Wi-Fi and even shorter than Bluetooth. The range of NFC is less than 4 centimeters (slightly less than two inches). NFC is at the lowest band of wireless technologies.
The data transferred is in kilobytes level, and it uses globally available band of 13.56 MHz (you don’t need to know the details of this). For detailed specifications, you can download documents from the NFC Forum.
Since it is short range, you cannot be vulnerable unless the attacker is within that range, apparently! Recently, BBC was reporting a demonstration of security attack on NFC (a demonstration by Charlie Miller of security research firm, Accuvant). This may put people into panic mode as several of us now are walking around with NFC smartphones.
However, let me make the things clear here for you. Any device that follows NFC specifications have their communications digitally signed to make them secure. This means, the two devices communicating with each other can identify the other device and can recognize if a third party is intervening in the connection.
The NFC security standard incorporates four layers of security—digital signature, ISO/IEC 13157-1:2010 standard, application security specified by the service provider, and additional security by the carrier or service provider for applications.
In the demonstration by Mr Miller, the hacking of the devices takes advantage of the default security rules of the device, and the default set of security rules is something that the user can configure. Also, the manufacturers will be able to make devices with better defaults for application level security that will make such attacks more difficult (I don’t say impossible as nothing really is; we have all seen people hacking into government websites, and I can’t say NFC being any more secure than such a website). This has been confirmed by the NFC forum itself, following the findings of Mr Miller.
So, there you go. You can trust NFC and get communications done securely through it.
Where Can You Use It?
Wherever you see an N-mark! The following is the N-mark.
This is the official NFC logo developed and promoted by the Forum. This is licensed and can be downloaded from the forum website by accepting to the terms and conditions. The logo can be used on your outlet if you are a service provider with NFC capability.
So far the NFC system is not extensively available. NFC tags can be used to circulate information to handsets worldwide. An NFC tag is a tiny disk with a power-free chip built in. The chip contains a small bit of information, such as the address of a website or some text. Some tags can even contain multimedia content (such as tiny movie posters or trailers). These tags can be stuck to anything and tapping on the tag, your phone will receive the embedded information.
These tags can have a lot of uses. You can program the tag to open a particular website or application on your phone and when you tap on it, the application on your phone will open up; for instance, you can program a tag to open music player on your phone and stick it on your car’s dashboard; every time the phone approaches the tag, it will open the music player and start playing your favorite songs.
As you can see, NFC has loads of applications. It’s going to change the world as we know it if used far and wide. However, so far the technology has limited reach. A lot of people have to be made aware of the advantages in order to make it more pervasive.