NFC: all about data exchange technology

It is more and more widespread and now equips most of our smartphones. What is this NFC technology and what is it used for? What about data security? Let’s do a check in.

The NFC, quesaco?

You may already have an NFC function in your mobile phone settings. It is an acronym for Near Field Communication. Thanks to a chip, this technology allows the transmission of data between two devices located a few centimeters apart. NFC is based on another technology that appeared in the 1980s: radio frequency identification (RFID). The latter allows the transmission of information in a wide field, up to 100 m. NFC uses the same frequency as RFID, but on a reduced number of frequency bands and only transmits over ten centimeters. Since 2010, it began to equip smartphones and there is a good chance that yours will be compatible. If not, we’ve got you covered with buying guides for the best smartphones across multiple categories.

What are the differences with Bluetooth?

A technology that allows data to be transferred between two devices close to each other, it is also reminiscent of Bluetooth. However, these two techniques are different in their characteristics, therefore their daily use.

First of all, Bluetooth uses a higher frequency than NFC and transmits data within a radius of up to ten meters, while NFC evolves in a field of up to 10 cm for optimal operation at… 4 cm. Bluetooth grants a high speed which allows the sending of data such as photos or videos, while the NFC only enjoys a reduced speed. Finally, Bluetooth requires a connection to access a device and can connect to several terminals at the same time, while NFC knows how to connect to a single device, but does not require any manipulation. So what’s the use of a technology with a lower speed than that of Bluetooth, which only emits in a very small field and can only connect to a single device at a time?

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What is NFC used for on a daily basis?

The NFC may not be very useful for you to play your favorite playlist if your speaker is at the other end of the room. However, it would be a shame to deactivate it! Indeed, many of us use it on a daily basis without realizing it. Its uses are multiple and grouped into three main categories: data exchange (peer to peer), card emulation and data reading/writing.

Peer-to-peer exchange was initially the main function of NFC: two mobiles glued to each other can transmit information (photos, files, etc.). Just activate the function ad hoc and open the file to share. However, transfers are slower than in Bluetooth mode.

Thanks to emulation, it is no longer necessary to have your loyalty cards, transport cards or even your bank card on you. The NFC will use the data stored on the smartphone’s SIM card and transmit it to the NFC receiver, triggering the action. Payments are made directly with your mobile via a contactless payment app.

NFC allows you to group all your cards in your smartphone.

© Unsplash

With NFC, your smartphone can also become an information reader. In contact with an NFC tag (or NFC label), it will display the information stored in the chip, like QR Codes to be scanned with an app. NFC tags can display information about a product or even lead to an action on the smartphone, the possibilities are numerous.

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Another mission of NFC is to facilitate pairing between the smartphone and a Bluetooth device also equipped with an NFC chip. No need to go through the Bluetooth settings, a simple contact between the two devices is enough.

To activate NFC on your mobile, go to the settings, where the function should be in the Wireless and network menu (the name may change depending on your model). Most smartphones also have an NFC shortcut in the notification bar to activate or deactivate it without digging into the settings. On Android, this function is also called Android Beam (formerly S Beam at Samsung).

If the majority of smartphones are NFC compatible, it is especially Android users who will be able to take full advantage of it. Indeed, iPhones have been NFC compatible since the iPhone 6, but use is limited to Apple Pay.

What about data security?

Many users disable the NFC function for fear of a security breach. However, this wireless technology is secure. First of all, there is its low range: the two devices must be very close – even touching – to trigger an action. Encryption and authentication algorithms also secure exchanges. Regarding smartphones, contact with an NFC tag or another device will require action on your part on the smartphone to validate the transfer.

For example, if you pay with your mobile, an authentication code will be required to validate the transaction. Thus, you can validate or not a payment request before it is effective. In the case of payment cards, there are special wallets to block NFC links which would be fraudulent, contactless payments being capped at €30 or €50 depending on your bank card. The risk is therefore limited.

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Contactless payment requires bringing the NFC chip of the card closer to that of the reader

Contactless payment requires bringing the NFC chip of the card closer to that of the reader.

© Unsplash

If you were to run out of battery, you should still be able to validate your ticket, because the chip would react with that of the terminal. On the other hand, payment by smartphone will not be possible since it would be necessary to validate the transaction on the mobile phone. Better to have your card on you!

It is also important to note that regular use of NFC technology generates information about your consumption habits. Here again, the use is regulated and the National Commission for Computing and Liberties (Cnil) is working to prevent personal data collected via NFC from being used for commercial purposes without the knowledge of consumers. Companies are also looking to use NFC to secure your home – this is the case of Netatmo and its Smart Lock.

Netatmo Smart Lock

Netatmo Smart Lock

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In summary

NFC is a wireless and secure technology which, little by little, has found its place in our daily lives. Our laptops are almost all equipped with Near Field Communication and can perform multiple functions by simply contacting another NFC chip. We find this technology in contactless payment (for example Apple Pay on the iPhone), the validation of transport tickets, but also in NFC tags, the use of which is similar to QR Codes that we scan. With NFC, the smartphone is more than ever an essential everyday accessory.

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