Friday, December 9, 2016

Thoughts on Canada's Banks and Cloud Based HCE

Update - This turned out to be busted, but not for the reasons I thought it would be.  See here

This week, one of the big five banks in Canada rolled out an update to support cloud-based HCE (Host Card Emulation).  Specifically, it was the Rambus “Bell ID” system - which they call “Secure Element In The Cloud” or “SEITC” - though everyone else has known this for years as plain old “cloud based HCE”.

Whilst it’s always interesting to see technological changes, it’s equally important to think about the ramifications of such changes.  

Just rewinding for a second for some quick history, first we had “Google Wallet” V1.0.  This tried to use a hardware device element to hold encrypted data, but network operators had started their own ISIS system (used to be at ), which got renamed for obvious reasons as Softcard (which was at  Simultaneously, smartphone manufacturers started adding their own Secure Enclaves - Apple has one called “The Secure Element” for instance.  

Google Wallet V3 is radically different.  It uses a technology called Host-based card emulation (HCE) instead, where card-emulation and the Secure Element are separated into different areas. For example, in HCE mode, when an NFC enabled Android phone is tapped against a contactless terminal, the NFC controller inside the phone redirects communication from the terminal to the host operating system. Google wallet picks up the request from the host operating system and responds to the communication with a virtual card number and uses industry standard contactless protocols to complete the transaction. This is the card-emulation part. The transaction proceeds and reaches the Google cloud servers where the virtual card number is replaced with real card data and authorized with the real Issuer. Since the real card data is securely stored in Google’s cloud servers, the cloud represents the Secure Element part. In general, this approach is considered less secure compared to the embedded SE approach.

The problem that the banks are hitting is there are many people with devices that don’t have a hardware enclave, and the banks want to been seen to be trying to accommodate those users.  In this example, they've gone the Bell ID route.

When you consider that a major part of the security is that the secret sauce is stored in a secure part of the hardware that the OS generally has no access to, the idea of lifting this up and sticking it in the cloud immediately begs the question of what happens if that back-end is then compromised?

There is less privacy with cloud based HCE. The mobile payment providers can already see who uses a certain credit card number, and then they do choose to share that data further with merchants or other companies for commercial and advertising purposes. This is something Google has already done with Google Wallet.

When you consider the pros and cons, it is hard not to feel like the banks have opted to put security in second place behind the optics of convenience for what could be inherently insecure devices anyway.