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January 07, 2013


Boston Fed on mobile phone technology: "Smarter than we thought"

When it comes to mobile payments security, will the most secure solution win out, or will convenience rule the day? Mobile payment services are coming to market, however slowly, and as they do, security in supporting technology platforms is a critical consideration for merchants and consumers. In fact, many consumer surveys, such as this one released by the Federal Reserve Board, have reported that U.S. consumers consider security to be an important factor when deciding if they will use a mobile device to access financial information or engage in a payment service. Because security is a major contributor to the success and ultimate broad adoption of mobile payments, Boston Fed researchers examined how the primary technologies supporting mobile payments at the merchant point-of-sale address payments security. These technologies include near-field communication (or NFC) and cloud solutions.

This post looks at some of the high points of a paper written by the Boston Fed researchers about their analysis. The paper, published November 2012 and titled "Mobile phone technology: 'Smarter than we thought,'" discusses the unique characteristics of each technology and why security practices will vary accordingly.

NFC mobile payment options vary in security and convenience
The three primary approaches to NFC mobile payments all involve storing payment credentials in an encrypted smart card chip within the mobile phone. This chip, also known as the "secure element," may reside in the subscriber identity module (SIM) card, it may reside in the micro secure digital (SD)—or memory—card, or it may be hardwired into the actual device. Each of these approaches has benefits and disadvantages with respect to convenience and security.

For example, the SIM card's storage capability provides an additional layer of security. The wireless carrier can manage the SIM card remotely to prevent unauthorized access if the phone is lost or stolen or if the SIM card is removed. In other words, the mobile network operator controls access to the SIM card, which, depending on your perspective, may also be a drawback.

The memory card is also portable and communicates with apps to enable mobile payments. This method can be speedy to deploy. As a result, several U.S. banks, card networks, and transit authorities have piloted solutions using memory cards. However, these cards typically support only a single application or payment account, so they may not be the best long-term solution. Furthermore, their portability presents security concerns because there is no lock or PIN to prevent removal of the card from the phone and then subsequent unauthorized access to the payment information stored within it.

The third approach has the chip soldered into the hardware, making it relatively tamper-proof. Although it is less costly than the other NFC options, it provides no portability feature. So despite the stronger security features, this lack of portability makes this approach inconvenient because consumers cannot easily transfer payment credentials and applications when they switch phones.

Mobile payments in the cloud: A new security paradigm
While industry stakeholders were discussing the security options of NFC technology deployments, new alternatives emerged that rely on cloud computing. In cloud-based payment business models, the consumer's payment credentials are stored remotely on a server—which a merchant or payment services provider manages—as opposed to on the phone's hardware. Cloud-based services are less costly to deploy than NFC-based services. In addition, because they are hardware-agnostic, they are essentially portable and convenient for the consumer. In some ways, cloud-based payments can be more secure than in-phone solutions, since the consumer's payment credentials are not stored in the mobile phone and are not potentially exposed during transactions. However, it is still necessary to take steps to secure the remote storage of payment credentials and other important data. And, as the paper notes:

There are still many unknowns to be addressed. Because payments data can be compromised in the cloud, it is essential that: 1) payments data is not transmitted via SMS [short message service, or instant messaging] or email because these platforms are not encrypted; and 2) payments to the cloud are transmitted between secure, encrypted endpoints handled either by mobile carrier data networks or merchant-provided secure Wi-Fi hotspots, and are not transmitted unencrypted over any network.

Data privacy remains a critical concern
Cloud providers have a responsibility to protect consumer data. They must comply with privacy laws and obtain explicit permission before sharing data or mining it for other monetization opportunities. Ultimately, cloud providers must make sure that the underlying payment services are secure and resilient.

When it comes to new mobile payment methods in the cloud, how will we make sure that cloud service providers are fulfilling these responsibilities? This new paradigm requires new processes for vendor management, especially for banks in mobile payments. Banks will need to be able to demonstrate to regulators that they have conducted a comprehensive risk assessment on service offerings and done third-party due diligence at the onset of an outsourced relationship. Regulators must provide ongoing oversight for financial stability and fulfillment of contractual responsibility.

Complex business models likely will use combinations of technology
As the paper notes, it is likely that we will see hybrid models that use both NFC and the cloud for managing different pieces of information associated with a payments transaction. As we noted in a previous post, there are benefits and challenges to both NFC and cloud technologies. Numerous complex variables are at play when it comes to their security environments. As these technologies are likely to coexist, it will be important to understand the underlying security features as new mobile payment solutions come to market in the future.

Cynthia MerrittBy Cynthia Merritt, assistant director of the Retail Payments Risk Forum

January 7, 2013 in consumer protection, mobile banking, payments | Permalink

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