Month: May 2015

NFC: An Issue of Trust?

The introduction of NFC (Near Field Communication) technology for payment cards, quite frankly, gives me the willies. I recently received my first “wave me at the coffee counter” touch payment card from my bank, and it set me to thinking. And what I think is that I have what any decent psychiatrist would call trust issues.

Imagine the scenario. You waft your wallet full of touch-payment cards at the payment station in your local Barista hangout – which one gets used? The first one detected, I suspect. And Murphy’s Law says it won’t be the one you wanted. To make sure the right one is used, you’ll have to take that card out, present it to the payment point, and put it back in your wallet. The delays this is going to create at ticket barriers and on buses will make for an unhappy rush hour experience (and let’s face it – rush hours don’t need any help, thank you very much).

And anyway, taking out the card you intend to use is boring! The whole point of putting NFC on a payment card is to speed up the process. The next time you’re in London on the tube, look out for the Oyster users who glare at the tourists who get immersed in the whole which-way-round-ness of barrier ticket confusion, with murder in their eyes. Even I use an Oyster card, and I don’t live there! And now, London commuters are going to have to lift out their oyster cards as well, because plans are afoot for TfL to accept touch payment cards at tube barriers and on buses. So pretty soon Oysters will have to be kept separate from any other touch-payment enabled cards. In fact, all of these NFC/RFID enabled cards will have to be kept separate from each other. Perhaps we need a lanyard for each one, or is that just a Health & Safety disaster in waiting?

All of this negates the purported benefit – namely, speed efficiencies and ease of use.

My other issue is theft. NFC/RFID is actually good for thirty feet. On a good day, mind you (or “down hill with the wind behind it”, as my mother used to say), and not on any legitimate pay stations (which are generally restricted to a range of between 4-10cm). The kind of distance that I’m talking about is inherent in the technology, and means that thieves using a reader with a good range on it can steal the limit (soon to be increased from £20 to £30) on each of your NFC cards without ever going near your pocket. One afternoon’s wandering up and down Oxford Street could net tens of thousands for a “hard-working” tealeaf. And with passports moving to having biometric data stored on NFC chips, it means that identity thieves can hoover data up in a similar fashion. There are already phone apps on the open market that will read content from passport chips.

Now, ApplePay on the other hand is a solution that actually uses NFC well, and it’s a simple one at that. The NFC isn’t activated until you press the home button and your fingerprint is validated. Given the ubiquitous nature of the iPhone, it makes perfect sense for retailers and the like to adopt pay stations that accept ApplePay. Sadly, as it’s a service that’s only active in the U.S. at the moment, it feels a bit like Cinema and VHS releases back in the day.

If you still want to use your wafty-payment plastic, it turns out that you needn’t worry about theft, though, as I’m not the only one who’s been thinking about this issue. Betabrand have teamed up with Norton to create a set of RFID-shielded jeans, and there’s already a plethora of RFID-shielded wallets and card sleeves available on Amazon. I recently bought one from a certain “outdoors” retailer, but I was still able to gain access to the office by waving it in front of the door access system, so I guess the jury’s still out. Luckily, I needed a new wallet in any case, so no harm done. But it begs the question – is it tech worth getting just yet, or should we rely on our own good housekeeping and the odd insurance claim?

Frankly, I think I’m better off simply never leaving the safety of my foil-insulated house. But that’s probably a story for another time.

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