New NFC Security Feature Tightens Controls on Tag Data

The NFC Forum expects that a new standard that certifies data being written to Near Field Communication tags will make more companies interested in integrating NFC technology into products and services.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Apr 16, 2015

Near Field Communication (NFC) is a type of passive 13.56 MHz RFID technology that enables short-range wireless data transmissions at 4 centimeters (1.6 inches) or less. It powers such applications as contactless payments, and it lets consumers use NFC-enabled mobile devices to interact with RFID tags or other NFC-enabled devices and products.

The NFC Forum, an industry organization that develops and promotes NFC technical standards and best practices for the technology's commercialization and use, has released its latest technical standard, known as Signature Record Type Definition (RTD) 2.0. The group says that RTD 2.0 standard will help ensure safe deployments of NFC across all applications, by establishing a system for authenticating data written to NFC tags.

Tony Rosati
NFC devices operate in three modes: reader-writer, in which the NFC module can either collect data from or write data to an NFC RFID tag; peer-to-peer, in which two NFC devices exchange data when in close proximity; and card emulation, in which the only NFC function that the device performs is a proxy for a credit card or a contactless building-access card. So, for example, when a smartphone containing an embedded NFC module is used to make a purchase, the module inside the phone acts as a contactless card and the module inside the payment terminal acts as a reader, collecting data from the phone and then triggering a secure transaction.

As use of NFC technology grows, manufacturers are beginning to embed NFC tags inside products so that consumers can more easily interact with or learn about those goods, or to thwart the potential counterfeiting of those items. For example, some Hewlett-Packard (HP) printers have an embedded NFC module that can be used, in combination with HP's ePrint software running on a mobile device, to send a document directly to the printer, via NFC. And Sony has integrated NFC technology into certain modules of portable digital speakers, making it easy to pair an NFC smartphone to the device and then stream music to the speaker via a Bluetooth connection.

The NFC Forum estimates, based on shipments, that there are currently more than 500 million NFC-enabled smartphones in the global marketplace. Market research firm Strategy Analytics expects that number to grow sharply as an increasing number of manufacturers integrate NFC technology into devices.

Apple's iPhone 6 contains an NFC module, but supports only the card emulator mode (through the ApplePay program that many major retailers have adopted), and thus cannot be used for applications outside of payments. Nor has Apple opened up the NFC module to mobile phone app developers, via an application programming interface, as Google has for NFC phones running on the Android operating system, according to Tony Rosati, the chair of the NFC Forum's Security Technical Working Group.

NFC technology has been widely deployed in Asia, Rosati says, where it is used for ticketing in transit systems, as well as for tracking purchases at some sushi restaurants.

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