Swirl launches new Bluetooth Low Energy beacon

Swirl Networks is introducing what it calls the industry's most advanced, secure and longest-lasting battery powered Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacon.

With a six-year battery life, Swirl's newest beacon leverages the Texas Instruments (TI) SimpleLink CC2640 wireless microcontroller (MCU), which uses 40 percent less energy than chipsets used by most other beacon vendors, according to Swirl. The new beacon's battery life is about two to three times that of most other beacons on the market today, the company says.

For large-scale retailers deploying thousands of beacons, a longer battery life can generate considerable cost savings since batteries don't need to be replaced as frequently. "I think right now the feeling is that having a battery life this long will really help to accelerate the retailer adoption of this at the enterprise scale" because it's going to both reduce the maintenance costs overall and reduce the organizational headaches that come with replacing batteries on a more frequent basis, said Rebecca Schuette, director of marketing at Swirl Networks, in an interview with FierceWirelessTech.

Swirl, which provides its beacon platform for retailers like Lord & Taylor, Hudson's Bay and Urban Outfitters, recently was issued a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for "Systems and Methods for Display of Supplemental Content Responsive to Location," which describes the technology and processes for using beacons to trigger delivery of targeted content to a mobile device based on a user's location. 

The company, which provides both hardware and software, has paid particular attention toward improving the security of its products, according to Swirl CTO Tom Middleton, one of the inventors listed on the patent. "When our beacons are out there broadcasting, they're broadcasting information that's all encrypted," so if a hacker or someone comes sniffing around and listens to what the beacons are broadcasting, "really, they're not going to make much use of those" messages. They're not going to be able to connect or talk to the beacons, and they won't be able to change the beacons' configurations or figure out where they are.

If somebody were listening for a Bluetooth signal -- if they were trying to sniff around a store that has one of its beacons, for example -- they would not be able to crack that code and figure out where the user is. From that standpoint, it protects user privacy, which is not the case of some other beacons being deployed by other vendors, according to Middleton.

But he added that from a security point of view, beacons are very low risk because they don't contain any user data; they're really just broadcasting an identifier that says "you are here," and they broadcast a number that is correlated to some back-end system like in a shoe department or sale rack. That metadata lives in the cloud and the beacon is just revealing its identifying number. "What our encryption does on top of that is basically change that when it's broadcasting, so unless you have the key, it's just gibberish," he said. It keeps changing, and "unless you have the secret decoder ring," the beacon can't be located.

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