Android and NFC modes

Quick note about the different modes for NFC usage supported in Android:

  1. Reader/writer mode. This is probably the most common scenario. The host device functions as the active participant, while on the other side is a passive tag that powered by the induction field generated by the phone. Examples include scanning a URL from a tag (such as Pay-By-Phone stickers on parking meters in SF, or reading information from a US passport) The Android NFC stack provides extensive support for this mode, in callback model: applications can register to receive notifications on discovery of tags, either by NDEF or tag type– such as Mifare classic tags or all ISO 14443 smartcards.
  2. Peer-to-peer, the basis for Android Beam. It is not possible to directly use this mode via Android API either on the sender or recipient side. Instead applications can declare an NDEF record to be transmitted if a beam-transfer is initiated. The stars have to align for this, with another device in RF range of the phone and transfer is confirmed by the user by clicking on the screen at the right instance. (There is also an optimization to register a callback to create that NDEF record on demand, without committing to it in advance.) On the recipient side, Beam is handled directly by the NFC service by invoking the right application.
  3. Card-emulation. In this mode the phone emulates an NFC tag. Specifically for Android card-emulation involves means routing communication from an external NFC reader directly to the embedded secure element, which can appear either as 14443 contactless smart-card or Mifare classic tag. The host operating system is completely out of the picture: the traffic goes direct from the NFC antenna to/from the SE, without traversing the Android path at all. It follows that applications  on the host OS have no control over the data exchanged in this model, except indirectly by influencing the behavior of applets present on SE. Card emulation is used for Google Wallet, to execute contactless payments with secure element as well as offer redemption. By default card emulation state is tied to the state of the screen: CE  is on only when display is on. (As an aside: the screen does not have to be unlocked. This is in contrast from reader/writer mode where the polling loop will not operate when screen is locked. For this reason it is not possible to scan tags without first getting past the Android screen lock, while tap-payments can be initiated by simply turning on the display and holding the reader against an NFC reader.)

Card emulation mode is particularly interesting because it allows the phone to function as a smart-card and substitute for single-purpose dedicated cards that were traditionally used in scenarios such as transit, physical access control and identity/authentication. In other words, subsuming the capabilities of an EMV contactless credit-card is the proverbial tip of the iceberg.


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