Mobile devices and NFC in public transit (part I)

(Or, why phones still can’t be used to get on BART)

Soon after Google integrated Near Field Communications (NFC) into Android devices, much speculation followed on when existing NFC scenarios could finally be integrated into cell phones instead of requiring separate cards and tokens. Payments was the obvious first choice and that is what Google started with. There was already a nascent infrastructure in place for contactless payments with NFC-enabled cards, using variants of the chip & PIN protocol defined by major card networks. More than any other existing use case, this one arguably has the most “universal” appeal. Not everyone rides public-transit or works in an office building where doors are controlled by NFC badge readers. It’s not everyday that people attend a conference/concert that issues fancy NFC attendance badges or stays in a hotel where rooms are equipped with NFC locks. Commerce then was the original focus for Google Wallet, launching with support for payments and offers.

What’s in your wallet?

Meanwhile real-world wallets contain much more than payment methods and merchant loyalty cards. Identity documents such as drivers license or eID, employee badges, gym-membership cards. Then there are public-transit cards such as Clipper card for Bay Area, ORCA in Seattle and Oyster for London which conveniently happen to be also based on NFC. They are used by millions of people commuting daily. Better yet, there is a uniform infrastructure in place unlike the case of payments. All stations, buses and turnstiles accept the same type of card. That is an improvement over the situation for payments: there are many merchants who accept credit cards but can only process old-school magnetic stripe cards, not chip & PIN or NFC.

So why isn’t there an Android app for getting into BART? The answer turns out to be a trifecta of  hardware limitations, a trust infrastructure that does not scale and ultimately that same chicken-egg problem faced by any new technology: significant upfront costs compared to unclear benefits.

1. Hardware limitations

The phrase “NFC” hides a complex morass of different standards and wildly incompatible technologies united only by the 13.56Mhz frequency they all use. This disparate group of hardware/software specifications have been cobbled together into a single uniform brand under the auspices of the NFC Forum. But no amount of wrangling by a standards committee can make up for the lack of uniformity in underlying technology. For example there are 4 types of tags alone, with different memory capacities, security levels and communication protocols supported.

Emulating credit-cards

EMV payments use type-4 tags, where the “tag” behaves like an ordinary smart-card except that instead of using a brass contact plate to receive signals directly, the communication takes place over the air. So how does this work on a mobile device, since an Android phone looks like nothing like a plastic card? That’s where the 3 different NFC modes of operation come in. In card-emulation mode, the NFC controller behaves like an ordinary card, except that it does not handle any of the processing. It is simply a conduit for passing messages to/from a card-emulation target. Originally that target for Google Wallet was a special-purpose chip called the embedded secure element or eSE where payment applications resided. Later iterations favored host-card emulation, with an ordinary Android application responsible for processing the incoming NFC messages.

Emulating transit cards

Transit on the other hand uses Mifare. Which variant of Mifare? It depends. Here are some data points:

  • Hawaii and San Diego  use Mifare Classic, which is the original version  based on a proprietary cryptographic design. (Surprisingly Mifare Classic does not fall into any of the 4 tag types.)
  • Bay Area, Seattle and London are on the more modern DESFire or its successor DESFire EV1.
  • Some systems also use Mifare Ultralight tags for cheaper, single-fare tickets. (These are trivially clonable and forgeable.)

Can an Android device emulate Mifare? The answer depends on the hardware model and what type of tag we are trying to emulate.

[continue to part II]





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