Last month, I looked at the potential for Bluetooth LE to revolutionize two-factor authentication for both PCs and mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. Pairing a PC with a user's smartphone could serve as a security token in the same way to that a SmartCard does except without the user needing to take any action other than having the smartphone with them.
But that's just one way Bluetooth LE could deliver another level of mobile security. Another, and arguably more practical, approach to securing mobile devices is preventing theft or loss in the first place.
A handful of products coming to market aim to use Bluetooth LE in just that way. Elgato's Smart Key is a perfect example. The small device, which fits easily on a keychain, can pair with an iOS device that supports Bluetooth LE (the iPhone 4S or newer, third generation iPad or newer all iPad minis, and the fifth generation iPod touch). When the Smart Key comes into or goes out of range of the device, various pre-programmed actions can be initiated by the associated app on the device.
Don't miss: Bluetooth LE is poised to revolutionize mobile security
The Smart Key is meant to hang on your key ring and prevent you from losing or forgetting your keys. The companion iOS app can notify you that you've forgotten them or are about to forget them, ideally before you lock a door behind you. It also records the location where they were last in range, which can help you find them when they're lost, and the app can trigger a sound on the key to help you find it. Thanks to Bluetooth LE's minimal power requirements, Elgato claims that each key can last six months or more on a single, replaceable battery.
But the Smart Key can be used to help you keep track of other items as well. The company lists four other potential scenarios in its description of the device.
Record where you parked your car by leaving a smart key in the car and letting the app record where you were when it you and your device moved out of range.
Put one in your luggage when traveling to let you know when your bags have reached the baggage carousel at an airport, saving you from crowding around furtively waiting for them. It could also help locate your bag if another passenger grabs it by accident.
Use a key to deliver micro-location-based alerts. These alerts would be more tailored to a specific room, like an office, than geofencing reminders such as those offered by the iOS Reminders app.
Attach the key to a valuable object or a bag containing a valuable object like a laptop bag, backpack, tablet case, or handbag. If someone takes the object or you forget it, the app will let you know immediately.
That last item is an excellent use case for this type of technology. Even if a thief gets away with your iPad or notebook, you'll know about it the theft almost instantly. Depending on the situation, that may make it easier for you, law enforcement, or a security guard in a public space like an office building or shopping mall to recover it.
Even if you can't recover the device, knowing immediately that the incident happened still lets you take quick action to secure the contents of the device by remotely locking or wiping it quickly. This reduces the chances of a thief shutting down a device or disabling its connectivity and thus insulating it from location tracking and the ability to remotely lock, wipe, or interact with it.
Elgato isn't alone in developing Bluetooth LE proximity solutions. Kensington, long known for providing physical security cables and locks for electronics, offers a line of similar tracking devices that includes both fob-style trackers like the Smart Key as well as tag-style trackers that can be affixed directly to mobile devices like an iPhone.
StickNFind offers up tag-style tracking stickers that can be attached to virtually anything. The company's companion app also includes a "lost sticker" feature that allows the devices of other StickNFind users to search for your missing object. If a device detects the so-called lost sticker, you'll be notified of the location where it was detected. StickNFind also offers trackers specifically designed for enterprise uses like inventory and asset management as well as for proximity-based authentication. The company also manufactures Bluetooth LE beacons that are compatible with Apple's iBeacon support in iOS 7.
There are a lot of radios in today’s smart home — that’s one of the biggest challenges for consumers trying to navigate the space — but a startup called Zuli aims to toss ZigBee and Z-wave and rely on Bluetooth as the future mesh network for the smart home. The year-old startup is offering a Bluetooth smart outlet via Kickstarter, but Taylor Umphreys, Founder and CEO of Zuli, says the plan is to keep adding more and more Bluetooth-based products.
His reasoning is sound. Most people now carry a smartphone with a Bluetooth radio in it, so they can control the device directly from their phone without the pain of having to buy a hub. And with the latest upgrades to the Bluetooth standard that lets a Bluetooth device act as both a hub and an endpoint, using Bluetooth devices to form a mesh network is easier. That’s something my colleague Kevin Tofel and I discussed on a podcast a few weeks back.
Although Zuli isn’t taking advantage of this ability (it was approved after the products were developed), the company did come up with a different way to build a Bluetooth mesh. Umphreys said that Zuli is likely to incorporate the standard once it’s implemented.
But Bluetooth isn’t just about eliminating hubs — it also can allow Zuli’s products to sense a person’s location in the home, which is going to be popping up in more products coming out this year thanks to the excitement around iBeacons in Apple’s latest phone. Outside of the phone, motion sensors in connected home devices, such as the Nest thermostat, could be another way for the smart home to know where you are. I’ve also heard of using microphones, Wi-Fi or even electricity usage to track your movements inside the home.
In Zuli’s case for presence detection you’ll need at least three smart plugs, which will listen for your phone, making it less than ideal for someone like me that doesn’t carry their phone on their person at all times. My daughter would be out of luck too, since at seven she doesn’t have a smartphone. However, I do wear a Fitbit (see disclosure) that uses Bluetooth LE pretty much all the time. Umphreys said that while today Zuli doesn’t use that to track me, it might in the future.
At retail next year, the smart plugs should cost around $50, about the price of the Belkin WeMo connected outlets that were launched in 2012. Those outlets use Wi-Fi, another common radio built into phones. Of course, before I invest in a few Zuli outlets I want to know that they will work with my other connected devices. While it’s cool that it might be able to turn on a lamp plugged into the Zuli smart outlet when I walk into the room, it would be even cooler if it talked to my wall switch to turn on the overhead lights. Umphreys is planning such integrations with other devices as well as more products that “speak” Bluetooth, but those will be farther off into the future.
And frankly, that’s the toughest part about covering this space. There’s a lot of cool technology arriving on the scene, but it’s fragmented, and every purchase feels like it has the possibility for vendor lock in. Using Bluetooth and Wi-Fi should help with this, so I welcome efforts like Zuli.
Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.