Near-Field Communications (NFC) is the technology supposedly driving the mobile payments revolution, but the capabilities of NFC go far beyond mobile payments, and could play an important role in the enterprise of the future, according to digital identity software specialist Intercede.

Intercede has long been providing secure identity management software to corporations such as Boeing, Booz Allen Hamilton and Lockheed Martin, and governments including the USA, UK (NHS) and Kuwait. In most cases, this is in the form of smartcard ID badges that employees can use to log into IT systems, to go past security guards and gain physical access into buildings.

Some of these systems require the user to insert the smartcard into a contact reader, while others use NFC for contactless communications. NFC allows employees to identify themselves by simply touching their cards to an enabled terminal. The technology is best known in the UK for its use in London Transport's Oyster cards.

NFC in business

Within the consumer market, there is growing interest around mobile wallets, which allow customers to pay for goods using their NFC-enabled mobile phones. As a result, 20% of all the handset models that were launched over the last year included NFC, compared to 2% the previous year, according to analyst firm Ovum.

This growth is not just down to mobile payments, however. While handset manufacturers had previously been holding out for operators to launch payment services before including NFC in their devices, many are now realising that NFC has a value in its own right, said Ovum analyst Nick Dillon.

“Whether it's sharing content between two devices by tapping them together, or pairing a phone with accessories, they've built some use cases that support their handset sales,” said Dillon. “For example, Nokia has launched some NFC accessories like speakers that you can tap your handset against and start playing music on them.”

Meanwhile, many companies are now adopting BYOD (bring your own device) strategies, whereby employees are encouraged to choose a single device for both personal and professional use. Inevitably, many of these devices are now NFC-enabled.

According to Richard Parris, chairman and CEO of Intercede, the convergence of these trends has resulted in several of its customers requesting to use their smartphones as smartcards.

“NFC has the potential to become ubiquitous, in as much as I think payments are going to become ubiquitous on them,” said Parris. “I think there is a smaller but inevitably growing interest behind that about using it for identity purposes. There's lots of occasions where you're not paying but you do need to identify yourself.”

Parris said that, when companies adopt smartcards, one of the big problems they face is employees forgetting their ID badges. Having a smartcard on your smartphone makes it easier to manage, as people are less likely to leave their smartphone at home.

Parris also said that small companies have previously been put off from implementing identity management systems, because of the cost of installing expensive dedicated equipment. Smartphones allow these identity management applications to become more mass market.

“The idea of taking a standard device that people already have and provisioning information to it over the air in a secure fashion means you have millions of people out there very quickly, working at a higher level of identity assurance, without having to put lots of brand new expensive infrastructure out there,” he said.

Intercede already offers this capability to its customers. Its most comprehensive solutions are for BlackBerrys, because they already have NFC embedded, and are supported by a strong security architecture. The company also recently launched an Android application that allows users to hold an NFC card against an NFC phone and interrogate it.

Nascent market

While the market for NFC-based identity management is still nascent, there are a number of enterprise applications that could take advantage of NFC capabilities in smartphones, either by touching a phone to an NFC-enabled card or device, or by touching two phones together.

Parris suggested that an employee who wanted to gain access to a secure printer could touch their mobile phone to the printer, and it would automatically identify who they were. They could then take that same phone and use it to open a door in a building, or validate visitors' smartcards as they enter a building.

“In truth a lot of the use cases are only just being dreamt up today,” said Parris. “The reason we as a company are excited is we think NFC enables a lot of capabilities that we've been wanting to have in the wild for some time, and now this becomes a way to have mass market appeal.”

Dillon pointed out that a lot of the use cases today do not capitalise on on the capabilities of mobile. Using a phone to access a building may be convenient, but it doesn't adding much above and beyond a regular access card.

“Where it starts to get interesting is when developers come along and build applications that really make the most of having this two-way communications and this screen on your device that you can then start to do clever stuff on,” he said.

“It will get there, but there's a bit of a chicken and egg situation, in that developers aren't really going to invest heavily in building applications until there's the support there from the handset guys. As the support starts to build, you'll see a lot of stuff crop up in this space.”

As in the case of mobile wallets, the security of NFC-based identity management systems is paramount. The first step is to populate the device with the appropriate credentials in a trustworthy fashion. Thereafter, the security issue comes from the applications.

“If you've got credit card details stored on there, personal information, it's how you control access to that information from third party applications from companies who you may not know or trust. So there's a role there that needs to be filled,” said Parris.

There are still many hurdles to overcome before NFC becomes a standard part of corporate culture, but the explosion of the technology in the consumer world, and the growing BYOD trend, is bound to drive change over the next few years.