Smartphones Are the High-Tech Keys of Tomorrow

January 9, 2013 Updated: April 2, 2013


In the past, high security systems were often imagined as retina scanners and palm-print readers. But today, when we all play on our phones like 14-year-olds, it appears we’ve decided the only things personal enough to verify our identities are our phones.

There are already some notebooks that scan for your phone with bluetooth and use that alongside a password to ensure security. But this is just the beginning. Very soon, smartphones could replace keys for your car, house, or even a school locker.

Researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Secure Information Technology (SIT) in Darmstadt unveiled one such system at the CeBIT trade fair in Hanover, Germany, which they call ShareKey software, and hope “will make the key app concept even more versatile and secure,” according to a press release.

In addition to allowing users to open locks with their smartphones, ShareKey also lets users assign digital keys remotely, and even limit which locks the shared keys can access. This feature works by sending electronic keys to other people’s smartphones using QR codes.

  “For instance, I can grant the building superintendent access to my apartment for a short period so that he can open the door for the gas meter to be read while I’m at work,” said Alexandra Dmitrienko from the SIT, in a press release. “The solution is built around modern security technologies and can be easily integrated into existing access control systems.”

Whether the system itself is secure or not will be among its deciding points. Most of the current smartphone-key programs work alongside other security systems, like a user’s password. The folks at ShareKey hope to have their grounds covered, however. Dmitrienko said “the big challenge was to protect the electronic keys without compromising the intuitive operation of such devices.”

Security comes in several forms. ShareKey uses the Near Field Communication (NFC) transmission standard, which only works over distances of several centimeters. It also uses various technologies that keep a user’s keys separate from other data and apps on the phone, which protects keys from malware and access through other programs.

With ShareKey, communications between the phone and a central server are then protected using other established security protocols. “And even if this communication is hacked into, it’s impossible for unauthorized people to gain access to the digital key. This is because opening the door requires information contained both in the encrypted token sent to the user and in the app installed on their smartphone,” said Dmitrienko.

There are great ambitions behind the new uses of smartphone keys introduced by ShareKey. Researchers at SIT envision the technology being used for car-sharing technology, and replacing hotel keycards. “The trend towards a ‘shareconomy’ will benefit the further development of this technology,” said Dmitrienko.