Of all the interesting new tech that seems poised to garner a lot of buzz in 2011, near field communication (NFC), is probably the most exciting. If it takes off, it will transform the ways we communicate, share, and make payments with digital devices. This will likely take years to happen, but the groundwork is being laid right now. And RFinity is one of those companies at the forefront.
While Google and Apple are responsible for generating much of the buzz about NFC at the moment, the technology goes far beyond simply having the right type of chip in your mobile device. For example, how do you handle different types of data transfers being made from one device to another? And how to you ensure that they happen as quickly as possible? And most importantly, how do you ensure that they happen securely? Those are the things that RFinity is thinking about.
The company has just raised $4 million from Horizons Ventures in Hong Kong. And the space has gotten so red hot, in fact, that we hear they’re already out raising another round.
And it’s an easy bet for investors to make not only because of the space, but because of where the project originated: The U.S. Department of Energy. Specifically, RFinity was born when a bunch of infrastructure security experts working for the government were assigned to find all the vulnerabilities in cell phones. Through software they came up with, they were able to quite easily eavesdrop, manipulate SMS messages, and even compromise LAN security. Then they set out to figure out a way to stop people from doing those very things. That work led directly to RFinity.
Work originally began in the person-to-person and person-to-vendor sales space by way of mobile applications that route transactions through RFinity’s own secure servers. But now that NFC appears ready, RFinity is making sure they’re ready for it. The idea is that their technology could cut out the middle man here: themselves.
Obviously, the company isn’t going to share all the details on how they secure NFC transfers. But the basic overview is that they verify an incoming NFC signal and ask for a user’s permission before taking any action. Further, if the action is a transaction, it requires a PIN, just as you might do an ATM withdrawal. That’s all pretty standard. But the key is one-time-use transaction codes that RFinity creates on the fly along with complex cryptographic signatures. These ensure that an transaction is secure since it means that every transaction can only happen once. Even if those numbers were intercepted by a hacker, they would be useless beyond the one-time payment.
And even if your phone is lost or stolen, a thief couldn’t do anything without your PIN. And you can remotely shut down your NFC capabilities via RFinity. It’s enough to make me wish I could throw out all my credit cards right now. “Today’s identification and transaction systems are based on what? A magnetic strip on the back of a card, based on a 1950’s technology that relies on a base station to read the information embedded as a series of simple magnetic markers in plastic tape,” writes Josh Jones-Dilworth, who is working with the company to bring them to market.
Again, NFC as a technology is great and potentially game-changing. But the software is still needed to make it actually work. And some of the big guys began realizing that early on as companies like PayPal, Bank of America, and even Subway have been testing out different things with RFinity for some time. In fact, RFinity has actually been doing field tests of the software end of their technology since 2009 in places like Idaho, well before most people in the U.S. had ever thought about NFC.
But now people are starting to care. And soon, they could be caring a lot more. NFC is already built-in to Google’s new Nexus S device — and the company has put out a call for developers to start using the tech. Rumors have the next iteration of the iPhone gaining the technology as well. In other words, I suspect we may be seeing acquisition rumors starting to fly around RFinity in about six months or so. Provided their technology proves up to the NFC challenge, of course.