Why Tap-to-Pay Is Safer Than a Credit Card Swipe


In today’s fast-paced world, convenience and security are two paramount factors that determine how we choose to make financial transactions. Traditional payment methods like swiping credit cards are being challenged by newer, more efficient alternatives, and one such method is tap-to-pay. This technology allows consumers to complete transactions in mere seconds, offering a level of speed and security that surpasses conventional credit card swipes. In this article, we delve into the intricacies of tap-to-pay, exploring the technology behind it and why it has taken so long to gain traction in the United States.

The Foundation: Near Field Communication

At the core of tap-to-pay lies a technology called Near Field Communication (NFC), which is a specific form of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). NFC operates on the principle of electromagnetic induction, using tiny wires that act as antennas to facilitate communication between devices. When you tap your card or phone for payment, these antennas come into play, enabling the swift exchange of information.

Mike Maclennan, General Manager of Hardware at Square, a company specializing in card readers, provides insight into the inner workings of tap-to-pay transactions. He compares the process of opening a card reader to that of opening oysters, highlighting the NFC antenna’s delicate nature. The card and the reader establish both passive and active connections: the reader is active as it possesses power and can initiate radio communication independently, while the card is passive, relying on an active source to initiate communication. This mimics the dynamic of tapping your phone, as it emulates the passive card.

The Intricate Dance: Radio Frequency and Cryptograms

Tap-to-pay transactions rely on a radio frequency specific to NFC devices, operating at an exceptionally short range of up to four centimeters. When the reader detects the card, it requests payment information stored in the card’s chip. This information includes static data, such as the account number and expiration date, similar to what is sent from a card’s magnetic stripe during a swipe. However, tap-to-pay goes a step further by transmitting a cryptogram, a unique string of numbers used to validate the card’s authenticity.

The cryptographic key within the card combines information from the reader and the card itself to generate a unique number for the transaction. This complexity makes fraudulent replication of the card challenging, enhancing security. The payment information, including the cryptogram, is then organized into an encrypted package and transmitted to the main board, which subsequently sends it to payment networks like Visa, MasterCard, and AMEX, leading to the approval message. This entire process occurs in just a few seconds, making it significantly faster than traditional chip insertions.

Efficiency and Security: The Advantages of Tap-to-Pay

One of the key advantages of tap-to-pay is its efficiency. Unlike chip card insertions, which involve several back-and-forth communications, tap-to-pay streamlines the process, transmitting only essential information. This efficiency is due to the technology’s design, prioritizing speed and simplicity.

Moreover, tap-to-pay is regarded as more secure than some other payment methods. During communication, static data, which is vulnerable during swiping, is better protected. Additionally, the absence of physical contact with the reader reduces susceptibility to malware that may affect chip insert transactions on rare occasions.

The Journey to Widespread Adoption

While tap-to-pay has gained significant popularity in recent years, especially driven by the push for contactless payments during the pandemic, it has taken over a decade to establish itself in the United States. Initially introduced in the 2000s, tap-to-pay cards struggled to gain acceptance due to limited business infrastructure. Many retailers were not equipped to accept these payments, hindering widespread adoption.

US retailers’ reluctance to invest in new payment systems, coupled with the challenge of changing consumer behavior, contributed to the slow adoption of tap-to-pay. While the technology was convenient and secure, it did not address a pressing issue for consumers.

However, recent developments suggest that tap-to-pay is on the verge of becoming ubiquitous. Efforts to integrate it into various aspects of daily life, such as public transportation systems, are gaining traction. For instance, New York City now allows subway riders to tap to pay at turnstiles, a development aimed at getting people accustomed to this payment method. Credit card companies are banking on the idea that if consumers use tap-to-pay for daily commuting, they will also use it for other purchases, from coffee to lunch to drinks.

Furthermore, companies like Square have introduced functionality that enables the NFC antenna in smartphones to serve as the active connection, essentially turning your phone into a card reader. This innovation could make it easier for small retailers to accept card payments, further expanding the reach of tap-to-pay.

Tap-to-pay technology has emerged as a game-changer in the world of financial transactions, offering unparalleled speed and security. It relies on the intricate dance of Near Field Communication, radio frequencies, and cryptograms to facilitate seamless payments. While it took some time for this technology to gain ground in the United States, recent developments indicate that it is poised for widespread adoption. As tap-to-pay continues to evolve and integrate into various aspects of daily life, it is set to revolutionize how we make payments, making transactions faster and safer than ever before.

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