Google May Have Found a Way to Make the Real-World Web Work
Remember beacons? Honestly, there’s not much reason you would. Hailed for years by Apple, Google, and beyond as one of the next big things in tech—for marketers, at least—the glorious beacon future has yet to arrive in the present. They may get a little closer, however, now that Google has solved one of their major issues.
Here’s your one-sentence refresher: Beacons, a bedrock of the “physical web,” are small transmitters that broadcast information about a location to nearby mobile devices. For the most part, they’ve been pitched as a way to make the experience of shopping at brick-and-mortar stores more like shopping online. Instead of clipping coupons for stuff you might buy, the items on the shelf will ping you themselves.
There are benefits and drawbacks to this for both companies and consumers, but one glaring disadvantage for everyone involved is that they’re not very secure. Google’s going to fix that. Or at least, it’s going to make a start.
Bringing Home the Beacon
You may not use beacons yourself—or realize that you have—but they’ve made sizable inroads since Apple first launched its iBeacon standard back in 2013. They lean on Bluetooth low energy (BLE) to transmit a unique identifier and connect to nearby devices, like your smartphone. From there, they can track customers through as store, or send them location-based messages. Macy’s, for instance, uses them to ping customers with deals and discounts as they walk through distinct departments.
The benefits for retailers and marketers are pretty obvious; you can serve up relevant offers to customers based on their physical location. Sounds nice! For consumers, though, it’s a tougher sell. Just because you’re inside a Starbucks doesn’t mean you want Starbucks inside your phone, and even if you did, there are layers upon layers of permissions to wade through before you can actually take advantage. Besides which, most businesses still aren’t using them effectively yet.
“For the most part, retailers have missed the mark when it comes to leveraging beacons,” says Adam Silverman, an analyst with Forrester Research. “Their approach has been to be very overt with the messaging, such as using beacons to greet you personally when you enter the store.” Silverman thinks a better implementation is to drive service; the Golden State Warriors, for instance, use beacons to make nose-bleed ticket holders aware of seat upgrade offers during the game.
Still, it’s early days. In fact, Google didn’t make its first beacon play until a year ago with Eddystone, an open source beacon specification. The technology has proliferated, though, and will continue to as the hardware becomes more accessible and the applications more obvious.
“Part of the success of beacons is their simplicity,” says Google VP of Engineering Yossi Matias. “We’re seeing this mushroom of all these devices. In a way it reminds me of the very early days of the web, when all of a sudden it was very simple to set up a web page. People are starting to come up with all these ideas of how to do that.”
But as beacons grow in popularity, their security holes become more of a liability. More specifically, their reliance on BLE makes them susceptible to long-term tracking, as a recent study from Open Effect found. In that report, reseachers found that seven out of eight BLE fitness trackers emitted unique identifiers that let the devices be tracked even when not paired with a mobile device. Think of bad actors who tap into not just your online activity, but your actual, real-world movements and routines.
“People don’t have a really good feel for the digital exhaust that they leave as they go around the web,” says Joseph Hall, policy technologist at CDT. “It’s way worse when it comes to operating in physical reality.”
And to the extent that people do appreciate how the real-world web works, they’re already suspicious. “Privacy is the top consumer barrier to wide adoption of beacons,” says Silverman. “Customers are weary of sharing their location data with a retailer or venue.”
Compounding the issue is that today’s beacons are designed to be discoverable by any nearby device, making private communications—and whole new categories of use cases—either risky, or downright impossible.
That’s where Google comes in.
What Google’s announcing today is an “Ephemeral ID,” which lets developers control who can access a beacon signal and, just as importantly, who can’t. It’s open source, and available on GitHub today.
How Eddystone-EID works gets technical, so it might be useful to start with the real-world actions it will enable. Today, Google’s announcing partnerships with a variety of vendors. The K11 museum in Hong Kong, for instance, will use Eddystone-EID to enable personalized visitor tours; walk up to a specific exhibit, and a beacon will transmit information about it to your mobile device. Samsonite, meanwhile, will later this year release a suitcase with an Eddystone-EID beacon built right in, to help keep track of your luggage.
Samsonite is a particularly helpful example, since it’s hard to imagine it being possible without a secure connection between your suitcase and phone.
“As we started this project, my favorite use case was the suitcase, since I travel so much,” says Matias. “You can think about many benefits; my favorite one was getting a notification once it’s near the carousel, so I don’t need to waste time watching other bags. … But the question is, how can I do that knowing that I’m the only one that can recognize my suitcase, and that it’s not recognized by anyone else’s mobile device?”
Google’s answer? Create an encrypted, moving target. Beacons are registered to an EID platform, which enables them to send encrypted, rotating IDs synchronously with that platform. In turn, that means that only users with access to a service that knows the current ID can access its data. It creates an exclusive club, with a secret, constantly changing password that only select people know. It’s also protected by AES encryption, meaning that to anyone who doesn’t have the shared key, the EID representation looks like gobbledygook. It can’t be tracked or spoofed.
“The threats that Google’s trying to protect against here is some sort of persistent correlation between your identity, or some location, or the fact that you’re communicating with this thing quite often,” says CDT’s Hall.
Importantly, the EID solution also doesn’t create any more work for the consumer, because again, they’re being asked to do too much already.
“The main challenge of having done this right is that we keep the utility, and make the platform safer across the board,” says product manager Nirdhar Khazanie. In fact, EID can also be implemented in existing beacon hardware, as long as there’s a willingness on the part of the vendor and the ability to accept firmware updates.
We’re still likely a long way from beacons becoming an everyday part of our lives. And there’s nothing forcing the deployers of beacons to make EID part of their experience, or even to use Eddystone at all. There are a number of competing standards still out there, after all, and no easy indicator for users as to which one you’re in contact with.
At least now, though, it’s possible to have a modicum of privacy without making beacons even more of a headache.
“It’s very easy to provide security layers which compromise the user experience,” says Matias. “These are very easy to deploy from a technology point of view, and are very bad experiences. The real challenge from a technology perspective is how to keep things simple, but also add a security layer on top of everything.”
The next challenge after that? Making sure that layer actually finds its way into the beacons that need them most.
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