Samsung Pay’s Encryption Perception Problem

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It seems a funny thing has happened on the way to using Samsung Pay for some users, as the emerging mobile payments platform isn’t compatible with a phone’s encryption protocol. Simply stated: if the phone is switched into encrypted mode (as many who use their phones for work are required to do), users can’t add cards to their Samsung Pay wallet.

This isn’t going over well. Although it’s not yet clear if this encryption conniption is a glitch or intentional, either way it is sending a positively terrible message to users about Samsung Pay and security. Not requiring a user to activate phone encryption is one thing, but refusing new payment credentials if it’s already been activated is very different.

The issue was discovered by XDA developer community member mattspierce, who tried to install Samsung Pay on an encrypted, but otherwise factory phone. That matters because Samsung Pay, like many other financial services applications, will not work if the phone has been rooted to give its owner super-user/root access. Samsung phones further come preloaded with the KNOX security system, which is designed to detect rooting – and then disable apps like Samsung Pay once it has occurred.

In this case, however, the user did not root his phone – the only change from it’s out-of-the-box condition was the encryption he had activated. After successfully downloading and installing the Samsung Pay app, mattspierce found he was unable to enter a pay card into the wallet – getting a “Couldn’t contact the server” error message whenever he tried.

Some quick Google work indicated that the issue was not a quirk of his phone – and instead seemed to be a common problem among users with Device Encryption flipped on. After seeking additional guidance from Samsung Pay, mattspierce found that as adding cards in Samsung Pay and device encryption don’t play well together.

Samsung confirmed: “If the device is encrypted, you cannot add card to the Samsung pay app. You need to decrypt the phone to add card to the Samsung pay app.”

To decrypt the phone, most users can go to the Settings Menu and flip the phone to decrypt in the Security sub-menu. Some models, however, do not have the decrypt option – in which case the only way to remove it is to do a factory reset on the phone.

Now notably this doesn’t prevent encrypted phones from using Samsung Pay – after decrypting the phone and adding their payments cards, users can re-encrypt phones (all phones can be encrypted from the Settings menu) and Samsung Pay will work just fine. PaymentsFacilitator.com has confirmed this with two separate Galaxy 6 users.

It also bears mentioning that this is not the first issue involving encryption that has caused problems for Samsung users looking to add important or sensitive information to their phones. This YouTube video was posted over a year ago to explain to Samsung users how to encrypt/decrypt their devices – noting that it was particularly important to decrypt before doing software updates, as leaving it in encrypted mode would make that process a frustrating failure.

But even if there is a fix, it is a massively inconvenient one. For users without an easy decrypt button, a factory reset will mean that a pay card is not all they will need to add to their phone when it is over. Those lucky users can look forward to spending a lot of time re-personalizing their devices.

Even those who can easily decrypt without the reset are facing a big time suck if and when they go to re-encrypt their phone. This is because doing so is not a matter of just tapping a button and going. It is a two-hour process, during which the phone cannot be used at all. Interrupting or screwing up the process runs a non-zero chance of bricking the phone.

There is no official word from Samsung on whether the incompatibility between encryption and adding cards to the mobile wallet is an intentional design feature, or an oversight. However, given that the issue has occurred in a different form in the past and given that the incompatibility neither makes does nothing to make the phone work better or more securely for users, it seems a likely conclusion that this was not an intentional design feature so much as it is an ongoing design issue.

And, very possibly, this is the exact wrong issue for Samsung at the wrong time – as it is essentially forcing potential Samsung Pay users to make a choice between security and convenience of use. Customers can undergo a long process (or potentially extremely long) process to decrypt, add their card and re-encrypt or they can compromise on security and keep their device unencrypted.

The fact that Apple Pay and Android Pay are shouting their own encryption and tokenization support as loudly as they can, this situation is differentiating Samsung Pay is a presumably undesired manner.

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