Security Market Segment LS
Tuesday, 23 February 2021 10:40

Swiss researchers find way to trick credit cards into not needing PINs

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Swiss researchers find way to trick credit cards into not needing PINs Pixabay

Researchers at ETH Zurich, a university for science and technology studies, have used a man-in-the-middle attack to bypass the use of a PIN code by Mastercard payment cards, and also those from Maestro.

In a statement, the researchers said they had found a similar way to get past VISA cards in September last year.

They said the attackers exploited the data exchanged between the card and the payment terminal by using an Android app that they had created and two NFC-enabled mobile phones.

"The app falsely signalled to the card terminal that no PIN was required to authorise the payment and that the card owner’s identity had been verified. Initially, the method worked only on VISA cards, as other providers use a different protocol," the statement said.

Security flaws found in contactless payment cards are primarily due to EMV, an international protocol standard that applies to such cards. Errors within the logic of this protocol are difficult to detect, not least given that the standard is more than 2000 pages long.

In the case of Mastercard, the researchers used a different method. “Our method tricks the terminal into thinking that a Mastercard card is a VISA card,” explained Jorge Toro, a member of the university's Information Security Group and an authors of the research paper.

He added that two sessions had to run concurrently for it to work: "the card terminal performs a VISA transaction, while the card itself performs a Mastercard transaction".

These methods were used successfully on two Mastercard credit cards and two Maestro debit cards issued by four different banks.

Mastercard was informed of the vulnerability. "It was both enjoyable and exciting to work with the company on this,” said Toro.

The statement said Mastercard updated relevant safeguards and asked the researchers to try the same attack again, and this time it failed.

The researchers will present their paper at the USENIX Security ’21 symposium in August.


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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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