Protecting your contactless card

As I mentioned in NFC Payments 101, current contactless cards aren’t protected against the simple attack that consists in performing a transaction while your card is in your pocket. Since some models don’t require anything else than tapping the card, the attack is workable.

Well, that may change. researchers for the University of Pittsburgh’s RFID Center for Excellence have invented a on/off switch for cards, that simply requires you to put your finger on a specific spot on a contactless card to allow it to work (see a picture here).

Comment on the various articles around the topic are quite typical, ranging from the “This is very dumb because it is unpractical” to the “You have to give up some practicality for security”, and all variants in the middle. I would have liked to see the inventors’ arguments, but I haven’t found a reference to a paper/report.

From previous experience, user experience often wins, in particular when, like with contactless cards, practicality is a selling point of a technology.Also, since the idea is to protect your cards in your wallet, I would think that it is easier for security-conscious to use wallets that include some kind of wire mesh or other wave-blocking technology. Since the on/off switch requires you to actually get the card out of your wallet, it is more or less equivalent, and it only annoys security-conscious people. The other guys will still be able totap their wallet (until, of course, they start having several contactless cards in there, in which case this optimization may not work any more).

This invention does not look flexible enough. The threat of someone performing transactions without you knowing is not significant enough to justify this kind of generalized measure for payment cards. On the other hand, it sounds much better as privacy-protecting technology on ID cards, since an ID card. Ensuring that the data about your identity will not leak from your wallet is interesting, and since an ID card is typically pulled out of the wallet before to be used, the technology is not an annoyance any more. But of course, in research like in politics, the fears associated to credit card theft remain more powerful than those associated to privacy protection (although identity theft is gaining traction).

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