What is NFC?

What if there were a safe, secure way to use your smartphone to pay for things? What if two devices could talk just by sitting next to each other? Here’s the secret: if you have the right devices, they already can.

The technology is called NFC, and you’re to be forgiven if you haven’t heard of it. A lot of top end phones have it but it’s almost unknown in the US because the big dog of cellphone style, iPhone, doesn’t have it. NFC, or near-field communication, is a special kind of communication that’s designed to be very hard to hack because it only works within about six inches. In order to get the signal, a hacker would have to be close enough to see, even if he was using very complex equipment. It’s about as secure as Bluetooth but it’s designed to let two devices communicate without people doing anything.

NFC would let you pull pictures off your phone to a media sharing device if you put the phone on top, and it would let you pay for a soda or a subway ride just by waving your phone at the machine. It’s a very neat technology and it’s used a lot in other parts of the world where Apple doesn’t have a stronghold.

One of the neat things about NFC is that the amount of power needed to make the transmission is so low that one of the devices can be totally unpowered and can respond using the power of the radio signal. In that way, it’s like the RFID tags that keep stores from losing inventory. That means you could put a chip on anything, like a candy bar or a dress, and get more information from it just by waving your phone at it. This could make it easier for all the devices in your home to be connected inexpensively.

Believe it or not, NFC has been around for about a decade, and it’s found in most high-end Android phones. Look for the little “N” logo (the one at the top of this article) somewhere on your phone (at least until the government rules that your phone can go without these stencils) or on connected devices like Sony’s line of NFC cameras. Chances are you have this technology now, you just need some reason to use it.