MIFARE® and DESFire® are trademarked brands referring to a series of integrated circuit chips (also known as RFID chips) that are used in access credentials. The trademark is owned by NXP Semiconductors.
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MIFARE chips are so prolific and popular that an estimated 1.2 billion people globally have access to a system that uses them. The flexibility and very small size of the chips means they are used in a huge variety of different systems, such as transport networks, university access control, hotel room keys, and many more.
There are four families of MIFARE chips:
MIFARE Classic is commonly used for access control systems that don’t require a high security solution, such as corporate office buildings or gym and leisure facilities. The memory inside a MIFARE Classic chip is essentially just a storage device divided into sections and blocks for different parts of the data.
Information is encrypted on a MIFARE Classic chip using a 48-bit key. Following security concerns and successful attempts to attack and reverse-engineer MIFARE Classic cards, the series has evolved to improve its security. However, NXP is now recommending that organisations using MIFARE Classic-based systems migrate to higher security products in order to guarantee protection from attacks.
MIFARE Plus was designed to replace MIFARE Classic while remaining backwards-compatible. Equipped with AES128 encryption, MIFARE Plus offers a higher level of security when combined with AES-backed readers. The main benefit of MIFARE Plus was that MIFARE Classic systems could be upgraded to a higher level of security seamlessly, with no additional infrastructure required.
MIFARE Ultralight is designed to be inexpensive and generally single-use, as they are not equipped with cryptographic security features. They have only 512 bits of memory and are often used for disposable ticketing for large events such as concerts or sports games.
MIFARE DESFire is the highest security family of MIFARE chips. The DES refers to Data Encryption Standard, a block cypher of which there are three sub-types used in MIFARE DESFire chips, in the EV1, EV2, and EV3 versions. MIFARE DESFire also benefits from AES encryption. The ‘Fire’ is an acronym, standing for Fast, Innovative, Reliable, Enhanced.
As the most secure family of chips, MIFARE DESFire is ideal for systems that require identities and personal details to be protected, such as touch-free payment cards or high security access control.
MIFARE chips are used throughout the world in more than 70 countries. You have probably used them in many different contexts without even realising it. London’s Oyster Cards for public transport, the Oxbridge university campus cards, Scotland’s NEC cards, and the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) all use various types of MIFARE technology.
The main considerations for system specifiers and integrators are the level of security required and the cost of the different chips. The higher the security of the MIFARE technology, the greater the setup and maintenance costs. In order to save on these costs, some system integrators opt for a relatively inexpensive card such as MIFARE Classic, and then bolster the security of the back-office components to identify and block fraudulent cards.