NXP Semiconductors has developed a touch sensor that could combat thieves using a mobile scanner to attempt to steal account details from contactless payment cards.

The Netherlands-based technology provider has engineered a sensor that can be built into a contactless payment card or passport that activates the card only when users make a swiping or sweeping motion with their fingers.

NXP engineers say the “capacitive” touch sensor has been built into prototypes of plastic payment cards that use NXP contactless chips.

Card users need to swipe the top of the card while it is near or resting on the reader to trigger the card into use. Without that motion, the card can't transact. Touchscreen phones like the iPhone also require users to make a swiping motion to unlock them.

NXP engineers told Engineering and Technology magazine that development of the new sensor began after it was proven earlier this year through research from Oak Park, Ill.-based security vendor ViaForensics and a British public television Channel 4 news investigation that criminals could use portable readers to steal information from contactless Visa Barclaycards in the UK. 

The new NXP sensor can detect and react to more complex gestures than swipes, such as the cardholder’s handwriting, using that capability as a code to unlock the cards or to read successive letter and number shapes as in a PIN code, the company says.

NXP designed the technology to also protect conventional payment cards when consumers are completing a transaction through a card reader attached to a personal computer. The card sensor stores the PIN code, allowing the consumer to complete a transaction without typing in a PIN on an insecure PC device, the company says.

Engineers had to develop the touch sensor in a way that it would not react to situations, such as a person jogging with the card in his or her pocket, that might trigger the capacitive sensor.

The current version of the sensor works with standard contactless scanners, but the company says it is working on development of a sensor that would work in an NFC-enabled smartphone for authorizing payments through the phone.

Subscribe Now

Authoritative analysis and perspective for every segment of the payments industry

14-Day Free Trial

Authoritative analysis and perspective for every segment of the industry