Are you human? Do you occasionally lose things? Does it suck when you do?
With the power of social networks and other fashionable buzzwords, you can spend money rather than get your shit together!
Lapa is a sleek device, thinner than the width of a pencil, that communicates with a smartphone app so when you attach it to your valuables, you’ll always know where they are. When in range (150 ft or so with a direct line of sight), it can use the radio signal strength to help guide you to your misplaced item; when out of range, it can harness the collective power of the Lapa network to determine its last known location.
This device is EXACTLY the kind of thing the new Bluetooth 4.0 specification (Bluetooth Smart, Bluetooth Low Energy, or BLE) was designed for – small, low power, cheap electronics “that can operate for months or even years on tiny coin-cell batteries.” Very cool.
That said, there’s a fundamental conflict between “social”, which implies sharing details with people you may or may not know well, and “security”, protecting your valuable assets from people you may or may not know well. Specifically, they claim:
How can you simultaneously share the location of your wallet to everyone and have any guarantee that they won’t use that information for evil?
The creators don’t go into the specifics of their implementation, but from their description of its features, here’s how I would design a Lapa:
The BLE spec supports a mode they call “broadcasting”; the device can periodically (once every second or so) advertise some information, usually a device name and some information it has about the world. If the device is a thermostat, it might broadcast a unique ID and the current temperature, so if there happens to be a reader nearby, that reader can update its database with this latest-greatest information. If the device is a Lapa, it doesn’t need to have any additional information about the world – the phone can combine the Lapa’s unique ID with its own location to add your item’s most up-to-date location to its database.
With that bit of background out of the way, let’s talk use cases. The creators of Lapa describe two – you’re in radio range of your Lapa (e.g. your wallet is stuck between the couch cushions), and you’re out of radio range (e.g. you forgot your wallet at the overpriced coffee conglomorate down the street).
The first case is fairly benign – the app can guide you to your item through a series of “warmer”/”colder” clues based on the radio signal strength. In other words, because the Lapa is broadcasting with a fixed power, your phone perceives the signal as louder the closer you get. It’s not too different from having someone call your phone, except the ringtone is in the 2.4GHz ISM band.
What about if your Lapa is out of range? This is where marketers start throwing around words like “social” and I start feeling a bit squeamish.
Let’s start with the naive case – no remote database in the “cloud”, no Facebook, the app stores the last known location of your item locally on the phone. This works great until, one fateful day, you duck out for fro-yo, leave your phone at home to charge, and forget your favorite man-purse at the topping bar. As far as the app knows, the last known location of the Lapa was somewhere around your driveway, but because the device is always broadcasting, anyone with a BLE receiver in “scan” mode can get its information. If that BLE receiver happens to be a smartphone running the Lapa app, it will look up the unique serial number in its database, see you’ve reported it lost, and notify you that another fro-yo lover (anonymous to you) has heard from it recently. Meanwhile, their app shows them only items that belong to them – they know nothing of their heroism.
This is the happy-path, and with a well-designed database, it can be made reasonably secure. But doesn’t it seem a little weird that your self-described “valuable” is broadcasting its location to everyone and anyone constantly? All it takes is some know-how and a BLE sniffer for someone to equip themselves for a productive day of futuristic scavenging
Now, I’m sure some Indiegogo users are the tech-saavy type who can see through the sales pitch and are willing takes the calculated risk of broadcasting their passport’s location all the time if it slightly improves their odds of recovering it, but I would guess that the vast majority are not. Moreover, I understand this is really a marketing pitch, and I want to give them the benefit of the doubt and trust that they will take data security seriously, but is it not irresponsible to make no mention of the potential risks? To not explicitly disclose what data is tracked and stored? In principle, the functionality could be accomplished by storing only the last known location of the device, and that’s what is implied, but there’s nothing stopping them from tracking historical position information to build a profile of when and where your valuables typically are. Instead, the only stated risks involve package size, production delays, and certification.
(All images are screen shots of Lapa Indiegogo campaign as of 19 September 2013 unless otherwise noted)