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A beginner’s guide to NFC (Near-Field Communication)

You might not be familiar with the principles of near-field communication, but you’ve almost certainly used it.

Tapping your credit or debit card against a cash terminal (rather than inserting it and entering a PIN code) is the most familiar example of NFC in action.

Data can jump through the air up to a distance of four centimetres. That’s why it’s referred to as contactless, even though there’s usually an element of physical contact involved.

But how does NFC work, and is it safe for daily activities?

So near and yet so far

Near-field communication relies on short-range radio frequency identification, or RFID.

This innovative technology was developed in the late Nineties and early Noughties by Nokia, Sony and Philips.

The Nokia 6131 was the first mobile device to offer NFC tagging in the UK, while bank cards began incorporating RFID tags at the start of this decade.

Today, this technology underpins smartphone payment platforms including Apple/Android/Samsung Pay.

Short-wave wireless signals are generated by one device and received by another, across the unlicensed 13.56MHz radio frequency.

Transmitted data may range from credit or debit card information to media files.

NFC can also establish a Bluetooth connection for the duration of file sharing, before disconnecting upon completion – Bluetooth is faster, and covers a much wider radius.

It’s easy to pair devices permanently, by momentarily holding them together while NFC is activated.

Because data can only be transmitted over a few centimetres, there’s little danger of device A accidentally communicating with device C instead of device B.

And because no internet connection is involved, NFC works indoors or in areas with limited wireless signals, like aeroplanes.

Is it safe?

In theory, someone possessing powerful antenna equipment could detect RF signals from a few metres away.

However, an eavesdropper would look pretty conspicuous standing in the checkout area of a supermarket, with radio aerials extending skywards.

There haven’t been any high-profile cases of NFC fraud, despite the relatively insecure data transmission protocols involved.

In fairness, recipient devices are typically only accessible for a few seconds, while payment portals on smartphones require biometric or PIN-code activation.

That leaves a very small – and localised – window in which fraud could occur.

The benefits

Arguably the biggest advantage of NFC is the heightened level of safety it provides.

A cashier can’t physically take hold of your payment method to clone or steal it, and passers-by won’t get to see a PIN code being entered.

Quicker payments also mean shorter queues and smoother checkout experiences, with one device hosting every loyalty card and payment method (eliminating frantic wallet searches).

NFC is also used for wireless charging, eliminating the wear and inconvenience caused by trying to inserting fragile cables the right way round.

NFC tags could potentially operate like QR codes – displaying information or generating maps when triggered in museums, town centres or other public spaces.

A single NFC device might one day serve as a front door key, monthly train ticket and personal ID.

File transfers are completed quickly and easily, while pairing devices with near-field communications is much easier than relying on Bluetooth.

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