Are Contactless Payment Methods Secure?

“Contactless,” in this context, refers to the use of a wireless device. A payment is contactless when, instead of inserting your credit or debit card, you hold your card or keychain device within a few inches of the terminal, and your payment information is sent and processed wirelessly.

Contactless payments offer a faster and more convenient alternative to cash for small purchases at fast food restaurants, convenience stores, and transport terminals. They are also ideal for remote or unattended payment situations, such as vending machines, road tolls, or parking meters. So far, I haven’t seen a report of bad guys exploiting contactless payment systems.

Hackers, whether they’re black hat (bad guys) or white hat (security professionals), are always looking for vulnerabilities in technology. The bad guys’ intentions are to exploit these vulnerabilities for ill-gotten gain, and the security professionals’ are to make the technology more secure.

A white hat hacker demonstrated some of the vulnerabilities of early contactless technologies for Canada’s CBC News. However, these demonstrations took place in unrealistic settings, and the IT professional went to great lengths to concoct scenarios in which this payment processing method could lead to fraud. These scenarios encourage fear, uncertainty, and doubt, without providing any tangible testing value.

In response to the question of security in contactless technology, the Smart Card Alliance stated, “Contactless smart card technology includes strong security features optimized for applications involving payment and identities. Every day tens of millions of people around the world safely use contactless technology in their passports, identity cards and transit fare cards for secure, fast and convenient transactions. Multiple layers of security protect these transactions, making them safe for consumers and merchants. Some of these features are in the contactless smart card chip and some are in the same networks that protect traditional credit and debit card transactions.”

A researcher can manipulate tests in a controlled environment and create a desired outcome that seems to establish vulnerability, but there’s a big difference between that type of demonstration and real world penetration testing. To date, there is no such thing as 100% perfect security, and my guess is that there will never be. With that in mind, it is essential that the good guys continue to work towards that goal, impossible as it may be, and to expose flaws that they find, but they should do it responsibly.

Robert Siciliano, personal security expert contributor to Just Ask Gemalto, discusses on CNBC. Disclosures

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