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What is NFC?

By Robert Grimmick
Updated Jan 21, 2024
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Near Field Communication (NFC) is a short-range wireless communication technology found in mobile phones, credit cards, tickets, and other devices. Distances are limited to just a few inches to ensure privacy and reduce power consumption. Little to no setup is required, and NFC devices can operate in a variety of modes. The technology is expected to have a large impact on the mobile phone industry and could turn phones into virtual wallets that store identity and payment information.

Unlike many other wireless communications technologies, NFC was designed to have a very limited range. Devices that support the technology generally have to be within about 1-1/2 inches (4 cm) of each other to communicate, although longer distances may be supported in some cases. This limited range provides some security against eavesdropping and tampering because any attack would also need to take place from within a few inches of a potential victim. Transmitting over sort distances also uses less power, an important feature in battery powered mobile devices.

Communication over NFC takes place between two devices and requires little to no setup. An “initiator” device emits radio waves to start communication with a “target” device which listens for incoming signals. The connection can be either active, i.e., both devices emit radio waves, or passive, meaning one device powers itself with the radio emissions of another device. Once a link is established, data can be transferred in a reader/writer mode in which one device writes data to another, or in a peer-to-peer mode in which devices exchange data.

NFC technology is expected to have a large impact on the mobile phone industry. Mobile phones equipped with the technology can be used as a “virtual wallet,” and could potentially replace debit and credit cards, rewards cards, tickets, and travel passes. The first NFC-enabled phones were released in 2007, and pilot programs in Europe and Asia have allowed consumers to make payments, use mass transit systems, and even board commercial flights using their phones. More advanced applications are also possible, and some envision this technology powering everything from interactive advertising to wireless file transfers.

Beyond the mobile phone industry, NFC technology could be used in credit cards, passports, inventory tracking systems, tickets, and advertising. In the U.S. and other countries, some retailers already have NFC-compatible payment terminals that allow consumers to purchase goods by waving their credit or debit card in front of the device. Consumer electronics devices may also incorporate the technology for a variety of purposes, from wirelessly printing photos from a digital camera to exchanging information in order set up a secure Bluetooth® or WiFi connection.

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Discussion Comments

By browncoat — On Dec 05, 2013

@irontoenail - I particularly like the idea of having it in a passport. That could make it so much quicker in an airport if all you have to do is swipe your passport as you go through on your way into a country.

By irontoenail — On Dec 04, 2013

@MrsPramm - There is always a kind of arms race between thieves and security and new technology doesn't make any difference to that. No matter what system you use there are always risks that someone is going to rob from you, whether you keep your money in your mattress or access it from your cellphone.

I find the safest thing is to diversify my money as much as possible, so it's not all sitting in a lump in a single bank account. I also try to keep the majority of it in accounts that can't be accessed on a whim, like savings accounts that have to be reached with passwords and the money transferred out before it can be used. So, even if someone manages to crack the cards I keep on me, they will only have access to day to day money rather than everything I own.

I think NFC is the way of the future and we're just going to have to get used to it. If you combine it with that technology that requires fingerprints before your phone will work, then it seems like it's probably even safer than having a credit card.

By MrsPramm — On Dec 04, 2013

This kind of thing really makes me nervous because the easier it is for me to pay for something the easier it is for someone else to use my information to pay for something.

And I've heard of people figuring out how to use this kind of technology to steal your information and money just by brushing past you in a store and getting their phone close to yours. It seems to make a pickpocket's job much easier if they have access to the technical know-how to exploit it.

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