Are Smartphone-Operated ATMs Safe?

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Banks are currently pushing a new way for you to get cash. By extending the technology that already lives inside every modern phone, the banking sector wants its smartphone-wielding customers to be able to securely interact with their ATMs without so much as a card.

The most popular means to make this happen is with NFC, or Near-Field Communication. It’s a wireless protocol that securely sends data between two electronic devices when they are within a few inches of each other. They can transfer files or data to confirm an identity or facilitate a purchase. This is the tech at work behind every Apple Pay transaction, for example. Now it may soon be headed to your ATM.

With 18,000 domestic ATMs to its name, JPMorgan Chase is test-driving this technology on a few hundred machines in four American test cities. Bank of America and Wells Fargo will introduce cardless access to ATMs before the end of 2017. Forgetful bank customers everywhere seem bound to benefit — shunning the card might seem like a baby step, but it’s big news for two main reasons: security and convenience.

Bankers have long been at war with “skimmers,” disguised hardware that malicious third parties install on an ATM to record card numbers as people swipe them, and their corresponding PIN codes as people punch them in. The all-important ATM card becomes the weakest point of attack here; by using a physical card, there is a mild yet inherent lack of security for a bad guy to take advantage of. For a similar attack to take place at an NFC-enabled ATM, the bad guy would have to steal your entire phone, and you’d notice a missing phone before a missing wallet.

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