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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Is Google Wallet Safe?

A recent security flaw raises questions about mobile payments.

  • February 17, 2012

If you’re going to try to revolutionize the way we pay for things, you have to reassure us that your new way is safe. Last week, Google Wallet stumbled a bit in this regard.

A website called Smartphone Champ first reported the vulnerability. It turned out that anyone could get access to your Google Wallet by going into your phone, clearing the data, and setting up a new PIN. “[T]hey’d be able to add your card and have full access to your funds… All a person needs to be able to do this is access to your phone and within 1-2 minutes they will have complete access to your Google Wallet account,” wrote the post’s author. A video went up demonstrating how it was done.

The Verge independently verified the vulnerability, calling it “a black mark for Google.”

To Google’s credit, the company moved swiftly, first by temporarily disabling the provisioning of prepaid cards. “We took this step as a precaution until we issue a permanent fix soon,” Google’s Osama Bedier wrote at the time. Google also set up a toll-free number for anyone who might have lost their phone or had reason to believe someone was making unauthorized transactions.

By the evening of Valentine’s Day (a few Googlers’ significant others were surely irked at last-minute dinner cancelations), Google was able to assure users that the problem had been resolved. “[W]e restored the ability to issue new prepaid cards to the Wallet. In addition, we issued a fix that prevents an existing prepaid card from being re-provisioned to another user,” Bedier wrote. “While we’re not aware of any abuse of prepaid cards or the Wallet PIN resulting from these recent reports, we took this step as a precaution to ensure the security of our Wallet customers.”

So what’s the upshot here? Is Google Wallet safe, or not? Should we fear NFC payment technology? CNET, for one, went so far as to vocally wonder if Google Wallet would be the company’s “next failure,” asking: “Will Google kill the project?”

The answer, I think, is no–Google Wallet won’t be slinking off with its tail between its legs so quickly. It’s early days yet for mobile payments; the fact that the technology has not rocketed to universal adoption, or that it has experienced a few growing pains in its first months, is not an indication that all the hype around NFC was merely that–hype.

“People are asking if Google Wallet is safe enough for mobile phone payments. The simple answer to this question is yes,” declared Beider. “In fact, Google Wallet offers advantages over the plastic cards and folded wallets in use today.”

He might just be right about that. The potential benefits of NFC payments are many, and it’s worth bearing with Google Wallet’s growing pains to see how this technology begins to mature.

Need a bit of a refresher on what Google Wallet is to begin with? Check out the official site, or watch this video.

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