NFC on iPhone Can Be Unlocked, but Should You Care?

2 minute read
| News

Apple first embedded an NFC chip in the iPhone 6. Many folks have been disappointed that the capability only works with Apple Pay. When years went by without the NFC chip being unlocked, either officially or in a jailbreak, it began to seem like we’d never be able to use NFC on iPhone for more than Apple Pay. Well, that’s changing, courtesy of a jailbreak tweak.

NFC on iPhone

If you jailbreak your iPhone, its NFC chip will soon be a lot more useful

NFC on iPhone is Another Walled Garden

NFC on iPhone has been a walled garden since it first arrived. We’ve only been able to use it for Apple Pay, and some folks (myself included) were starting to think the hardware was locking out other functionality somehow. It turns out, that’s not the case.

Yes, NFC on iPhone is locked down, but it’s only through software. A popular jailbreak developer, Elias Limneos, has broken through the wall. He successfully made his iPhone respond to NFC-enabled devices other than Apple Pay readers. He even posted a YouTube video of the process, because pictures or it never happened.

Just NFC Tags, for Now

Limneos has enabled his jailbroken iPhone to respond to NFC tags, which is a huge step in the right direction. You can see the jailbreak tweak reading the tag and authenticating it. There’s sure to be more to come, though. Android users are able to pair NFC-enabled cameras and speakers, as well as transmit files between each other.

Eventually, jailbreak developers could use this functionality to open up their iPhones to pay on other NFC platforms than Apple Pay, unlock an RFID door with their iOS devices, or much more. I think, though, that this enhanced functionality of the NFC chip will remain jailbreak-only. I don’t think Apple will open up the technology to more than its payment platform, and for good reason.

The Walled Garden Makes Life Easier and Faster

For the average user, the walled garden behind NFC is probably a good thing. Since the chip is currently only used for Apple Pay, your iPhone responds the same way anytime it senses an NFC device nearby. It displays the Apple Pay interface. Your iPhone doesn’t have to take the time to figure out what that device is and which app to use for it. This is probably the main reason the Apple Pay experience is one of the fastest among all of the NFC payment platforms.

Limiting what the NFC chip can do also makes Apple Pay more secure. You don’t have to worry about someone rigging a different NFC reader to pretend it’s the Apple Pay reader and take your hard-earned cash.

So Why Hack NFC on iPhone in the First Place?

As I said, the walled garden is good for the average user. For the not-so-average iPhone owner, though, more freedom is a good thing. If you’re adventurous enough to jailbreak your iPhone, opening up the NFC chip to use it in new ways is a good reward for your efforts. According to 9to5Mac, Limneous plans to release the hack as a tweak on Cydia in the near future. Others should follow suit with more functionality soon, I’m sure.

[Editor’s note: Jailbroken iPhones are inherently less secure and have been targeted by malware, including criminal and state-sponsored malware. Know what you’re doing before jailbreaking your iOS devices. – Bryan]

4 Comments Add a comment

  1. AppleTim

    Jeff, this entire article is wrong. NFC on iPhone has been officially available, supported, and allowed by Apple for the purposes of unlocking hotel room doors. Go check out Starwood’s keyless program, and Hilton’s Digital Key.

  2. AppleTim

    Jeff, I thought the same, until I went to actually use Digital Key at a few Hilton Properties. Many times, the ApplePay interface on iOS would pop up during the door unlock process. It’s as if the phone thinks it’s at a pay terminal, and then asks for my TouchID to proceed. Here’s a report: https://humanizing.tech/review-of-hiltons-digital-key-to-unlock-my-hotel-room-door-515e8d305d00

    I could be wrong, but it looks as if the NFC chip is involved here.

  3. Jeff Butts

    There may be, for other devices (like Android). That behavior is precisely what is expect to happen when the iPhone’s NFC picks up a broadcast. It tries to negotiate an Apple Pay transaction. Meanwhile, Bluetooth wakes up and your Hilton Key app uses it to unlock the door. See Hilton’s FAQ for more information.

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