Remember the security dangers of using your phone’s NFC features? It’s been a few years since NFC gained in popularity and Android phone makers, especially Samsung, continue to push the technology with each new model. Yes, there are many wonderful uses for NFC, but they all come with a price. Consider the drive-by mobile attack. Are you at risk? Have you been compromised? It’s possible if you use NFC regularly.
For those who are unfamiliar, NFC stands for near-field communication. It’s a newer type of wireless communication utilized mostly by smartphones in order to perform quick data transfers between NFC-tagged devices. Coloquially, phones are “bumped” or “swiped” together. As the name indicates, it’s an extremely short-range wireless band so devices need to be within centimeters of each other to establish a connection.
The required closeness of devices might make NFC seem safe to use, but the drive-by NFC hack proves that close proximity isn’t enough to protect against the malicious.
NFC Is NOT Secure
NFC was designed to be a connection of convenience, not security. How so? Well, NFC requires you to bump, tap, or swipe an NFC-capable device (e.g., phone) against an NFC-capable reader (e.g., another phone). As long as both devices are NFC-capable and that they are within the NFC wireless range, the connection is valid. As far as the NFC protocol is concerned, the close distance is all that’s necessary for a valid transfer.
Can you see the weakness? No password or credential requirements! NFC connections are established automatically and do not require any form of login or password entry in the way that WiFi does. This has the potential for some real problems since anyone can establish an NFC connection with your device as long as they get close enough. Imagine if you bumped up against a virus-infected NFC device? It would only take one bump for you to catch it.
NFC can be made secure at the application layer by implementing secure channels or by requiring credentials, but NFC as a protocol itself is not secure at all. And despite the close-proximity requirements for an NFC connection to trigger, unwanted bumps do occur. Sometimes, even a well-intentioned bump (such as when paying with Google Wallet) can result in a disaster.
Basics of An NFC Hack
What is an NFC hack, anyway? Why is this particular form of wireless connection so vulnerable?
It has to do with the way that NFC is implemented on particular devices. Because NFC is a connection based on convenience, and because there aren’t many security checks in place, a bump could end up uploading a virus or malware or some other malicious file to the bumped device. And if the NFC implementation is insecure, that file could be automatically opened by the device.
Imagine if your computer automatically opened any file that it downloaded off the Internet. All it would take is one mistaken click on a bad link for your computer to auto-install malware. The concept is similar for NFC.
With these malicious apps running in the background, your phone could be secretly forwarding bank PINs and credit card numbers to an unauthorized person somewhere across the world. A virus might open up other vulnerabilities, allowing the malicious user full privileges to your device to read your email, texts, photos, and third-party app data.
The crux of the issue is that NFC transfers can be executed without the user even knowing a transfer is in progress. If someone could figure out a way to hide NFC tags in inconspicuous places where phones are likely to bump up against, they could upload malicious data onto NFC-enabled devices without people even realizing it. Hacker group, Wall of Sheep, proved this with NFC-tagged posters and buttons.
Or think about the next time you bump your phone to make a payment using NFC. In the same way that ATM security can be compromised, it’s possible for an NFC payment reader to be tampered with in such a way as to upload malicious data every time someone makes payment.
Think about the next time you’re in a crowded place, e.g., public transportation station, street performances, amusement parks. Instead of someone physically picking your pocket, they could simply bump up against you with their malicious NFC device.
How to Protect Yourself Against NFC Hacks
Keeping yourself protected against NFC vulnerabilities is easy: don’t use NFC until more testing is done and experts figure out how to patch security holes. However, if you really love NFC and want to adopt it right away, there are a few steps you can take to safeguard yourself.
Compartmentalize your sensitive accounts. If you use your NFC device for, say, quickly making payments through Google Wallet, then one way to stay safe is to have a separate account just for NFC. That way, if your phone is ever compromised and your Google Wallet information is stolen, it will be the dummy account that’s stolen rather than your main account.
Turn off NFC when you aren’t using it. This prevents accidental bumps from delivering unwanted programs and malware to your device. You may not think your phone gets within bump-range of many devices throughout the day, but you’d be surprised, especially if you find yourself in crowds a lot.
Routinely check your device for malware, especially after you’ve used NFC. It may or may not be possible to fully prevent NFC hacks, but if you catch them before they do much damage, that will be better than not catching them at all. If you find anything suspicious, change your important passwords and security credentials right away.
NFC is a new technology and NFC hack attacks are just the tip of the iceberg. But here’s the bottom line: yes, the technology that drives NFC has some risks, but so do all technologies. The proper response to this fact is to research those risks, weigh those risks against the rewards, learn how to protect yourself against a risk-turned-disaster, and then decide whether or not the technology is worth the effort of using it.
What do you think of NFC? Is it just a gimmick? Is it revolutionary? Have you been hacked by using it before? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!