Security Technology Explained

How Does a Drive-By NFC Hack Work?

Georgina Torbet Updated 07-04-2020

Maybe you’ve noticed a feature on your phone called NFC, and wondered what it is. Or maybe you’re using NFC for contactless payments from your Android or other device, and you’re concerned about how secure it is.

Advertisement

NFC is a common feature on phones, but something that many people aren’t aware of is that there are security risks associated with using it. Here we’ll explain more about NFC and how NFC hacking works.

What Is NFC (And Why Is It on My Phone)?

NFC Hack - what is NFC

NFC stands for near-field communication. It is a way for devices to communicate with each other when they are physically nearby. The most common place you’ll find NFC is on your smartphone. If your phone is NFC-enabled, as most are these days, you can use NFC for tasks like quickly pairing headphones with your phone, or bumping your phone against someone else’s to transfer contact data.

NFC typically works over a distance of a few centimeters. So to use it, you need to bring the two devices which are communicating very close together. Today, it’s also used for phone-based payments systems. When you tap your phone onto a reader to pay for your coffee order, that’s using NFC.

What’s the Difference Between NFC and RFID?

A similar technology to NFC that you might have heard of is RFID. You’ll find RFID chips in contactless cards, such as pre-paid cards you use to travel on some public transportation systems. And you might see items like wallets or card holders advertised as “RFID blocking What Is an RFID-Blocking Wallet? (And Which Should You Buy?) If you have cards, passports, or devices with RFID chips, then an RFID-blocking wallet could be important for keeping your data safe. Read More .”

Advertisement

So what is RFID, and what does it have to do with NFC?

RFID stands for radio frequency identification. It is a term for a system of a small radio transponder and a receiver and transmitter. You’ll also see these referred to as tags, readers, and antennas. The technology is used in everything from clothing tags in retail shops to access control such as identification cards used by employers. It can also be used for things like “chipping” pets or monitoring cars going in and out of parking garages.

RFID is not necessarily a secure technology, as it does not use encryption. There exist tools called RFID skimmers which allow hackers to read RFID data from nearby objects like cards. Hackers could use this technology to steal information from RFID items.

That’s why NFC exists. NFC is a sub-type of RFID, which is somewhat more secure. It uses encryption to keep data safe. Applications used for payment from your phone, such as Apple Pay, use NFC.

Advertisement

NFC Isn’t Perfectly Secure

NFC Hack - NFC security

So does that mean you don’t have to worry about your NFC devices being hacked?

Unfortunately not. NFC is more secure than other types of RFID, but it’s not perfect. It was designed to be a connection of convenience, not security. NFC requires you to bump, tap, or swipe an NFC-capable device like your phone against an NFC-capable reader like 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.

Advertisement

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 Wi-Fi 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 Google Pay Is Google's New Alternative to Cash Google is integrating all of its various payment tools into one cohesive solution. Google Pay is the new brand under which Google Wallet, Android Pay, and more will operate. Read More ) can result in a disaster.

Basics of An NFC Hack

NFC Hack - how NFC hacking works

Advertisement

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.

How to Protect Yourself Against NFC Hacks

NFC Hack - protect yoruself

The most effective way to secure against NFC vulnerabilities is simply not to use NFC at all. However, if you want to use functions like contactless payments, then there are steps you can take to make it more secure.

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.

Be Aware of Security Risks From Using NFC

NFC is a useful technology for certain functions. But it’s not without its security risks. Because it lacks password protection, it’s possible for hackers to access NFC data. They can even do this without you being aware of it.

It might seem like newly adopted technologies like NFC on phones only makes them more vulnerable. However, on balance, phones now are more secure than ever before. To learn more, see our list of reasons that smartphones are more secure than dumb phones 5 Reasons Why Smartphones Are More Secure Than Dumb Phones Think a dumb phone can make your life more secure? Think again. Here are five ways a smartphone is more secure than a dumb phone. Read More .

Related topics: Hacking, Identity Theft, NFC, Smartphone Security.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

Whatsapp Pinterest

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. captobvious84
    April 8, 2020 at 4:50 pm

    "if you are at a windows computer but not at a pc"...

    this sentence makes no sense since all windows computer are pc's
    if you were to not own a pc computer, you would be on a mac

    obviously the writer isn't very tech savvy

    • Eric
      May 29, 2020 at 7:56 pm

      "if you are at a windows computer but not at a pc"

      Well that's funny... that statement doesn't even exist in the article.

      Just another troll ain't ya!

  2. F U
    August 13, 2017 at 2:19 am

    Funny this website is claiming to assist in getting rid of unwanted BS advertisements yet this whole site and article are laden with them... Great work people.... Hacks.

  3. Scott
    October 19, 2016 at 6:09 pm

    How about all those damned websites that use javascript popups to beg for your email address. SIGN UP FOR OUR NEWSLETTER!!!! PLEASE!!! PLEASE!! SIGN UUUUUUPPPPP!!!!!!!!

    It's the modern day plague of the internet, worse than SPAM.

    • Eric
      May 29, 2020 at 7:58 pm

      So totally agree... along with all those fecking videos that automatically start playing if your mouse goes over the top of them. Not click, just going down the page.

      I Bloody Hate That! With a passion.

  4. Justin Goldberg
    October 13, 2016 at 3:30 pm

    This is all theoretical. Have there been any actual hacks?

    • Eric
      May 29, 2020 at 7:59 pm

      Yes there have.

  5. Jana
    May 21, 2015 at 9:45 pm

    I recently began dating a great guy who is tech savvy. Me, not so much,
    I only talk and text, no google or such. After our first weekend, I noticed my data was on. I don't use that either. Then after our next visit, I had a weird icon I'd never seen. It is the NFC thingy. I understand the world of phone sneakiness , but what is he able to see and read and steal from me. And how far apart do we need to be when it stops reading my phone. Thanks for any help you can share

    • Christopher Bettis
      December 11, 2017 at 2:54 am

      Your concern would be if he used it to pass "spyware" which it sounds like what you are concerned with. "incognito" is the app you should install and scan regularly. Generally NFC requires a bump or two from another device. Then again with a rooted Droid and a slight modification he could pass spyware roughly up to 10 feet away. There are other forms of trickery designed to pass the spyware via NFC. INCOGNITO will secure piece of mind either way. Ask him if he roots his Android that will be an indicator he is capable of such an incident. That's all the advice I have. ;)

      -Bettis007

      • Mick Philpp
        June 30, 2018 at 6:09 pm

        C'mon ; ( 'just ask him of he "roots" his Android.?') . come on guys, WHAT a Tip ?

  6. Alex T
    August 31, 2014 at 7:40 pm

    It is a shame that little research has been done into this article. It seems as though someone has found out what it is and immediately assumed a flaw in it. It is not possible to transfer files if the screen is off and just uploading a virus is rather difficult due to security measures that actually are already in place

  7. Rafael
    August 24, 2014 at 7:24 am

    This article sounds like an "Apple Expert" giving the reasons of why they haven't implemented NFC on their devices. As a user of NFC enabled devices (Nokia 701 & Lumia 1020), if the device is locked, the NFC does not work, and always ask for confirmation before anything, you really must be dumb for accepting things that you don't recognize.

  8. anupam tiwaru
    August 21, 2014 at 9:34 am

    its jusrt fucking n sucking ke4ep doing it

  9. anupam tiwaru
    August 21, 2014 at 9:33 am

    is it good i dnt break your heart
    thanx
    for more vulnerabilities keep continue

  10. Shawn D
    August 20, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    This article is complete FUD as far as NFC in smartphones goes! As a heavy user of NFC technology in not less than 4 different Android devices (and was a user on a Blackberry) you obviously haven't tried it. First and foremost, NFC is disabled until you turn on your screen (and unlock first if you have a lock screen enabled). So you would have to have the actual device in your hand first and unlocked for it to even work. I would think you would notice someone coming along an trying to tap your phone. Once the device is on then the only way you can recieve a file from other device is by accepting it. It's part of how Android beam (or S-Beam in some Samsung phones) works. You have to tap to accept the transfer while the phones are held together. NFC tags can be programmed with one of two kinds of information. First are things that are static like a link, text or contact info. When you tap a tag with this, you are prompted again if you want to open it, and in the case of weblinks, it shows you the address it is presenting. The second thing a tag can be programmed with is some code, but that code is only understood by the program that wrote it. For instance I have tags that turn on or off WiFi for me. If I don't have the program that wrote it loaded, then my phone beeps and does nothing at all. NFC tags generally do not store more than 1 kilobyte of instructions, so it would be hard to transfer any type of program through the tag itself. Sure a link to a bad site could be programmed in one, but again the user has to accept to open the link. It is not automatic. So if you set your phone down on top of a random malicious tag, still nothing is going to happen unless you are dumb and click the promt that pops up to open the link. I also use Google Wallet tap-n-pay, and again it does not work with the phone off and you have to unlock that app (via a pin#) to proceed with the checkout. So NFC in smartphones/tablets is very secure by it's design (in Android anyways). NFC chips exist in some credit cards and these are vulnerable to drive-by attacts from card readers. You can get metal lined sleeves for these to protect yourself. Now Bluetooth, which far more people leave on and of course open WiFi hotspots are far more vulnerable since those radios do operate with the screen turned off. Get your facts straight before making up some dumb stuff to scare folks.

    • Eric
      May 29, 2020 at 8:04 pm

      Doesn't need to physically bump. Transfer can happen from as far away as 5 centimetres. I've actually seen it happen.

      Didn't have NFC activated on "my" phone at the time. That put me right off ever having it activated.

  11. Sanuja R
    August 20, 2014 at 12:38 pm

    NFC hacking reminds me of BadUSB. Both are vulnerabilities of convenience. However NFC uses have the option to switch it off. I highly Recommend doing that when not in use because prevention is better than cure. If you aren't using it, why burn battery and get malware?

    Until NFC technology becomes secure enough, we will be seeing a lot of use of Credit Cards etc... in the near future.

  12. dragonmouth
    August 19, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    Lack of security is the price we pay for convenience. We want our phones to replace numerous other electronic devices. While those devices individually can be adequately secured from hacking, the process of integrating them into one (a smartphone) opens up security holes. We are our own worst enemies.