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What’s the Difference Between RFID and NFC?

November 2. 2016
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RFID and NFC are similar technologies that are currently used in a variety of industries and applications. They’re used in everything from cars to secure entry points to libraries. NFC in particular has become popular in recent years due to adoption by smartphone manufacturers. So what’s the difference?

Definitions

RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) is a way to transfer data with radio-frequency electromagnetic fields. It’s usually used to automatically identify and track tags on objects.

NFC (Near Field Communication) is a set of standards based on RFID high frequency technology. It lets devices establish two-way radio communication by bringing them close together.

How RFID works

RFID in use By Maxpayne473 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Maxpayne473 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

RFID systems vary widely, but at the least they’re made up of a tag and a reader. The tag contains an integrated circuit and an antenna. The reader uses its own antenna to send a signal to the tag asking for its information, then the tag sends back its unique information. The tag can be either active or passive.

An active RFID tag has its own power source and can broadcast its information up to 100 meters. That makes it useful for industries that need to track the location of assets for logistical purposes.

Passive RFID tags don’t have their own power. They’re powered instead by electromagnetic energy (in the form of radio waves) transmitted by an RFID reader. The power requirements mean that passive tags have a shorter read range. They can be read up to 25 meters, depending on the strength of the signal from the reader.

Passive RFID tags mostly use the following frequency ranges:

• Low Frequency (LF) – 125-134 kHz – up to 10 centimeters
• High Frequency (HF) – 13.56 MHz – up to 30 centimeters
• Ultra High Frequency (UHF) – 856-960 MHz – up to 100 meter

How NFC works

Near Field Communication (NFC) in a nutshell

NFC devices use the same frequency as HF RFID devices: 13.56 MHz. The standards and protocols used in NFC are based on standards for using RFID in proximity cards. NFC devices can read passive NFC tags, but some can also read passive HF RFID tags, so long as the tags follow ISO standard 15693.

Because they’re based on passive RFID technology, devices that use near-field communication have short read range. Also, they can act as both a reader and a tag at the same time. That makes it possible for two devices to set up a secure connection by reading and verifying each other’s unique ID. Once the connection is established, the devices can exchange data at a top speed of 424 kbps.

Passive RFID tags mostly use the following frequency ranges:

• Low Frequency (LF) – 125-134 kHz – up to 10 centimeters
• High Frequency (HF) – 13.56 MHz – up to 30 centimeters
• Ultra High Frequency (UHF) – 856-960 MHz – up to 100 meter

Common uses of RFID

Logistics and inventory tracking

By Cayco (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Cayco (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Manufacturing, shipping, and distribution facilities track items with RFID readers and active RFID tags. This helps companies gather and use data to know where items are, as well as to make their processes more efficient.

Race timing and event attendee tracking

By Tomkarlo at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
RFID Tag for Racing [Public Domain]

Foot races like marathons and 5k runs often use passive RFID tags in the bibs worn by participants to track their start and finish times. Large conferences use RFID tags in attendee badges to track the flow of foot traffic through the convention space. Some also use them as identification to help reduce lines.

Access control

RFID Reader By Lvova (foto) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
RFID Reader [Public Domain]

RFID is used in security badges by organizations that need to keep their premises secure. It’s also used in keyless entry systems for apartment and condo buildings. These uses also allow security managers to get information about attempts to open doors without an authorized tag.

Library systems and bookstores

RFID at the library By LIU (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
RFID at use in the library By LIU (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Libraries and bookstores put tags in books as part of anti-theft measures. Doing so also makes check-in, checkout, and inventory faster.

Common uses of NFC

Cardless payment

Apple Pay By Должин Жаргалсайхан (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Apple Pay By Должин Жаргалсайхан (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Products like Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, and Google Wallet use NFC technology to enable secure, cardless payment. This use requires the payer to touch their smartphone to a point-of-sale device to establish a connection.

Patient ID and information

RFID Tag for hospital use by Rico Shen [CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Hospital RFID Tag by Rico Shen [CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Some healthcare institutions use NFC tags in patient wristbands or specialized apps on their phones.  This enables quick, secure access to patient information.

Public transportation tickets

Farebox By Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, compiled by TJH2018 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
RFID “Farebox” By Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, compiled by TJH2018 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Some large city bus and metro systems are now using NFC-enabled phones to read passenger tickets and verify fares.

Data transfer

Other than cardless payment, one of the most common consumer uses of NFC is to transfer data between smartphones. Usually that means contact information, documents, and photos.

Smart posters

Smart Poster by English Wikipedia user Timoarnall [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
Smart Post by Timoarnall [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

NFC is becoming popular as an alternative to QR codes in promotional posters. It allows similar functions without the need for a QR code reading app.

Security

Both RFID and NFC can be vulnerable to reading without permission. Signal interception is also a concern, though NFC’s short range makes it safer than RFID in that respect.

It’s important to include security measures in the devices or the applications that use them. Without proper security, information can be stolen and tags can even be copied or rewritten.

RFID security

For RFID tags, security measures typically include a kill command and a disguised EPC number (the tag’s unique ID).

The kill command causes a tag permanently to stop sending and receiving signals. It is sent by a properly configured reader, and requires a password to enable. The password helps to protect against accidental or malicious disabling.

When a tag and a reader interact, the tag’s EPC number is disguised. This helps prevent unauthorized readers from identifying the tag during transmission.

Some types of tags and readers are made with hardware encryption to help protect their information even if the signal is intercepted.

NFC security

NFC devices usually have a range of four inches or less. This makes it harder for a criminal to intercept your signal. Many NFC tags also have a unique ID in read-only memory that cannot be modified, which helps prevent unauthorized cloning.

However, NFC doesn’t include hardware-based encryption. So applications that use NFC have to use encryption algorithms to protect the data they transfer.

Conclusion

As you can see, despite their similarities, RFID and NFC are quite distinct. Each has qualities that make it best suited to particular uses.

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