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Google gives its little-used beacon technology a security upgrade

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Beacons are a technological solution in search of a problem. Years ago, both Apple and Google hyped their beacon protocols — which use low-cost transmitters and Bluetooth Low Energy to track users' positions to within feet — but the technology has fallen by the wayside. Marketers were excited by the idea of delivering location-aware coupons and notifications to customers in shops, airports, and stadiums, but customers were less thrilled, especially if it meant having their location tracked constantly.

Encrypted IDs that make it harder to track users

Well, Google still thinks the technology has a future, and has released a security update for its beacon format that should help allay customers' fears about tracking. Physical beacons can now be equipped with what the company calls Ephemeral IDs or EIDs. Each beacon has an ID (kind of like your computer's IP address), which is used to identify it to users' phones and tablets, as well as larger beacon networks. EIDs are basically encrypted IDs that self-destruct after a given period of time — anywhere between one second and nine hours.

This, says Google, makes it harder to track users and spoof the location of a specific beacon. Speaking to Wired, Joseph Hall, chief technologist of at the Center for Democracy & Technology, said EIDs would make Google's Eddystone beacon technology less of a danger to users' privacy. "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," Hall told Wired.

Beacons are being put into suitcases and museums

Google says that 15 beacon companies will be supporting EIDs from this week with "more to follow" in the future.The company is also keen to illustrate the wide ranges of uses beacons can be put to. Samsonite, for example, is putting an Eddystone-EID beacon in one of its smart suitcases to help users track their luggage; the Washington Wizards are using the technology to offer rewards to fans at games; and Hong Kong Museum K11 is using Eddystone-EID beacons to deliver information about exhibits to visitors' phones.

All of this sounds sort of interesting, but not exciting enough to motivate the average consumer. It's good that Google is devoting resources to the security of its location-tracking tech, but the company — and its partners — will have to come up with a few more compelling use cases if they want to make beacons more than just a blip on the radar.