Digital key builds on past practices to create a more secure future

Too often, we assume that new technology replaces the old, but technology often builds off past generations, ideas, and success, rather than abandoning it altogether. Some people may not realize that past technologies are foundational to new technology, as is the case with Bluetooth. The same technology that gives us wireless earbuds and allows our phones to connect wirelessly to all manner of devices, is now helping build a more secure future with digital keys.

digital key

Bluetooth is quickly becoming a positioning radio that further expands the utility of the technology to gauge the relative proximity, direction, and distance between two or more objects, so it can be used for asset tracking, indoor positioning, way-finding solutions, and more.

With Bluetooth, cars, buildings, and more will implement digital keys to increase security and convenience in our progressively modern and tech-dependent world.

Digital key’s path and potential

Technology often follows a pattern of seeing what works and improving on it in new ways. The widespread adoption of digital payments through your smartphone started slow, but rapidly gained favor through retail adoption. Once people realized how convenient the new capability was, it has become common place to have a digital wallet.

This trend created a similar opportunity to turn your smartphone into a digital key. While the digital key has not reached the same level of penetration as digital payments, the technical foundation and social norm is there for the capability to gain rapid adoption. The automotive industry along with technology suppliers and mobile platforms are currently leading the charge for passive keyless entry, using your smartphone as a digital key. With Bluetooth in 100% of all smartphones today, market momentum suggests users are ready to accept the digital key like so many other improvements that came before.

The success of the digital key centers on providing a secure solution, increasing convenience, and overcoming current pain points such as multiple and lost physical keys, and lack of sharing options. Since we carry our smartphone with us everywhere, and Bluetooth is built into every single smartphone, why not use this every-day device to act as our digital key while adding more convenience, features and improvements beyond the physical key.

The next layer of accurate passive entry

Whether a badge, tag, fob, or other form of access authentication, each require some level of physical touch between the device and a scanner or touchpad to unlock and gain entry. You must manually complete the circuit to be granted access. With a digital key and high accuracy positioning, this is no longer necessary.

A Bluetooth digital key system will use positioning information from your smartphone to determine direction and distance as you approach the car, door or building to perform the next action for the user. Using capabilities such as received signal strength, angle of departure and time of flight, are all part of the positioning accuracy system that is designed to work with smartphones. This increased accuracy helps deliver an individualized, passive entry system for authorized access and management to a car, building, home, or any other secured area.

Digital key makes for simple and secure access control

The idea of sharing digital access is not new. Zip cars and other remote access systems have used variations of a digital key to great success. By expanding the technology, users can access cars from their phones and see information such as gas level, tire pressure, and more.

Another strong example of digital key adoption is from the hotel industry. Disney uses virtual check-in at hotels and keyless entry for rooms, making the process faster for customers and more straightforward for the hotel to track changes across the property. This is a natural progression from physical metal keys, to access cards, to digital keys stored on guests’ phones.

And while the case has been made for convenience, it’s not lost on digital key supporters the sensitivities of security. With your smartphone as a digital key, there are extra layers of security because of the two-factor authentication that can come from your phone. Getting access to an area inside a building could require a face ID scan or personal passcode that is all handled through your phone. When delivering a secure access solution, anyone can steal and copy a keycard, but it is much harder to overcome the two-factor authentication with a user’s phone, keeping everything secure and associated with the individual user.

Accurate proximity sensors are also a natural extension of security and convenience that are not limited to formal locks or buildings. Bluetooth is helping develop automotive digital keys that will use accuracy and proximity to tell what part of the car you are nearest, and what action you might want to take. Modules in the car will receive the signal from a phone and if you are at the back of the car, your digital key might only unlock the trunk compared to standing at the driver’s door, which will unlock the whole car.

Additional benefits of digital key

While the current momentum for digital keys is in the automotive industry, the benefits of a digital key, over a physical key, can and will apply to many use cases in our daily lives. Benefits including:

  • One key for everything: Most people end up carrying multiple keys. The number increases with hotel rooms, work access, car keys, and more. With a digital key, all your keys can be stored on your phone and there is no need to worry as all keys are available at any time.
  • Hands free (passive) access: Everyone has walked up to their car with hands full of items and must figure out how to unlock the car. Hands-free or passive access with a digital key takes care of that problem. By simply approaching your car trunk with your phone in your pocket can unlock it so you can quickly unload.
  • Lost keys are a thing of the past: Losing your physical keys can be a common occurrence and a true headache to replace. With “find me” technologies, far fewer people misplace their smartphones these days, and if you lose your phone, the access system can note your keys as lost, ensure no one else can use them, and reissue digital keys directly to your new phone.
  • Sharing of keys/access: Digital keys can be temporarily issued to others and easily removed when they are no longer necessary. It is far easier to issue a digital key to the pet sitter’s smartphone and revoke privileges from administrative software when the task is over.
  • Access rights can be updated: Digital key access rights can be transferred or updated. Car rental services send updated digital keys to new customers and deny access to past customers. Digital key can significantly streamline the verification process, so customers are on the road faster and the rental company has an easier time managing their fleet. In industries like hotels and resorts, compared to hunting down a physical access card, this process of issuing digital keys can save time and money for the operation and for the guest. A guest receives a link for an encrypted key that will stay active on their phone for the duration of their reservation, update with any reservation changes, and expire once their stay is over.

Bluetooth has been the standard for connecting wireless devices for years, but it can do more to make our lives easier. Digital key is a natural progression of existing technology that is well established in our daily lives. By focusing on proximity, direction finding and high accuracy distance measurements, we can enjoy more benefits in security and convenience while removing the roadblock of physical keys or access devices.

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