Canadian TV station wails: NFC bonking... it's not SAFE

Credit card cloning? Sigh, we've been here before


Another North American TV network has discovered credit card numbers can be read using a phone, and whipped itself into a media frenzy due to its failure to understand how NFC works.

This time it's Canadian outfit CBC News, last time it was Memphis-based News Channel 3, but the facts remain the same: an NFC-equipped card will hand over its number, owner's name and expiry date, to an unauthenticated reader, but it won't hand over the three-digit CVC or the cryptographic keys used to authenticate bonked payments.

Back in 2010, News Channel 3 had to use a laptop and snuggle up close to card-holders' wallets, but these days the same tech is built into dozens of mobile phones, which makes snuggling easier - even if the information lifted is of little value.

Ordering anything online will need the Card Verification Code (CVC), which is printed on the back of the card and not disclosed over the radio link. Pay-by-bonk transactions use a cryptographic challenge/response which differs every time, so knowing the card number won't help criminals there.

The expert called upon by CBC News is adamant that just a card number and expiry date can be used to buy “anything from a $1.50 drink from a machine to a $4,000 to $5,000 laptop.” El Reg would be interested to know which retailers sell five grand's worth of kit without checking the CVC, the home address or even the signature.

That's not to say the credit card number can't be used at all. Some merchants don't check the CVC or card holder's home address, but such merchants don't last long. One can also imagine a careful thief lifting the card number from someone they know, or someone whose PIN they've discovered by shoulder surfing at a cash point.

With the card number and the PIN our thief could make a duplicate card, then take it to a country (such as the USA) where Chip 'n'PIN security isn't universal and withdraw cash, but it's a convoluted process at best and knocking the user on the head is probably much easier.

Scare stories of this type are easy news, just as they were in 2010 and no doubt will be again in 2015. Yes, NFC has its problems, but there's really no need to go around conjuring up new ones - or rehashing discredited ideas into new TV. ®

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