Target breach, credit card security and NFC (part II)

[continued from part I]

Mutatis mutandis

The key difference in the simulated magnetic-stripe from NFC payment protocols such as Paypass is that track-data artificially constructed this way is not completely static. It changes slightly for each transaction, based on the state of the card and inputs dictated by the reader. Security against compromised point-of-sale terminals– what happened at Target– depends partly on the protocol and partly on issuer-specific policies decided by individual banks.

Here is what does not change between transactions:

  • Credit-card number: These protocols do not implement one-time-use card numbers or any other scheme designed to hide the “real” card number from the merchant.
  • Expiration date: Ditto.
  • Card-holder name: This is the field used to print the customer name on receipts. For contactless payments often it is a requirement that issuers redact the field to a generic label such as “customer,” possibly as reluctant PR response to the hysteria around NFC skimming stories.  (Redaction has an unexpected interaction with certain retailers’ practice of asking for ID during check-out. If there is no name displayed by the register, what would you compare the name on the driver’s license against?)

Instead the variable fields are:

  • ATC (Application Transaction Counter): Incremented for each transaction, regardless of whether the payment was successfully authorized. The protocol defines exactly what point in a transaction ATC will be incremented. Usually it is not automatically done when the payment application is selected but
  • UN (Unpredictable Number): This is effectively a challenge issued from the NFC reader to the card. It is picked unilaterally by the reader.
  • CVC3, also known as dynamic CVC: This is the response generated by the card in response to the reader challenge, serving as an integrity check over the data. CVC3 is of variable length based on provisioning parameters, typically from three to five digits similar to the CVC1/2 format. It is a function of a fixed IV representing card data, UN, secret cryptographic keys provisioned on the card and optionally the ATC, depending on card configuration. (More precisely ATC is always included in the computation but it is set  to all zeroes when not in use.)

Armed with this outline and without going into the details of how CVC3 is computed– suspending disbelief for now that the cryptography is sound, never-mind that a 3-5 digit “integrity check” is subject to brute-forcing– we can begin to speculate on what would happen to a hypothetical customer paying via NFC at a compromised Target point-of-sale terminal.

Fungible payment modes

First surprise is that paying via NFC by itself does not confer immunity against attacks using other payment modes. One might assume that whatever attacks are carried out against a contactless card will at best allow making fraudulent payments at other NFC terminals, but not for plain swipe or card-not-present transactions on the Internet. (This would be a “reduction” of risk only to the extent that NFC deployment remains relatively rare, which is realistically true today.) But the premise is false. As explained in earlier posts, there is by-design interchangeability between simulated track data from NFC and ordinary magnetic stripes. It is possible to copy track-data containing ATC/UN/CVC3, encode it on a plain plastic card and use that in a swipe-transaction. This will look correct through the reader, terminal, payment processor, all the way to the issuer responsible for  authorizing the charge.

Whether or not the charge is accepted depends on issuer configuration. In addition to receiving track data, the issuer also receives additional meta-data about the payment indicating payment mode such as swipe, NFC tap or manually keyed-in (when the stripe is damaged for example) On top of that track-data includes a service code which is typically different between physical magnetic stripes and their NFC incarnation. Neither of these can be influenced by the customer doing the swiping. Payment mode is determined by the terminal, while tampering with the service code will invalidate the CVC. At least in theory, issuers can cross-check payment mode against specific fields of track-data, rejecting attempts to replay NFC transactions on plain plastic cards, even if they carry valid CVC3 codes.

But attacks dating back to 2012 demonstrated in the field that many issuers are not performing that check.** This is possibly because many terminals are incorrectly configured, reporting the wrong mode even under normal operation. This makes issuers highly reluctant to reject transactions unless the probability of fraud is high. (Keeping in mind that false negatives– rejecting valid transactions as fraudulent– has a tangible revenue impact for the issuer because they earn interchange fees from each payment.)

In summary we have to consider attack strategies which attempt to monetize captured data in any possible payment mode: other NFC terminals, plain swipe transactions and even online purchases.



** Interestingly the converse is also possible, as demonstrated by a former colleague of this blogger. That engineer scanned the static track-data out from a plastic card and programmed an NFC application to use that as a template, with clever tricks to prevent the CVC3 from overwriting any part of the static data. Surprisingly it worked for some combinations of card issuers and payment terminals.

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