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Hotels could soon offer keyless entry via smartphone app

Starwood / YouTube

The process of getting into your hotel room may soon be simplified by a smartphone app that automatically unlocks your door when you're near — or it may complicate things, depending on whether the app is secure and easy to use.

A pair of hotels run by Starwood are trying out a new lock system that connects via Bluetooth to an iOS or Android app, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Such automated door locks already exist for installation in the home, but putting them in hotels is something of a different challenge.

The potential benefits are substantial, though: No longer would hotels have to throw away key cards by the thousand, and an app could actually prove more secure and convenient if done right. 

Millions of existing locks are vulnerable to hackers, and of course there's the ever-present risk that you'll lose your key. Now you'd have to lose your phone to have the same problem.

You can already check in and out via app at hundreds of hotels, but actually activating the door lock requires significant changes to the locks themselves. A wireless receiver on the door is activated via the Bluetooth on the guest's phone, and the lock is unlocked through a button or gesture. The receivers are battery-powered, so they'll work in an outage, and alert hotel staff when their power reserves are low.

It's not without its risks. Naturally a wireless, online system like this opens itself up to new methods of attack.

"There are ways to make its security more foolproof by having the guests download the key into the app only when they are on premise," wrote mobile security expert Chetan Sharma in an email to NBC News, to "ensure that the computing system at the hotel doesn't get overwhelmed by attacks or spam from outside."

He added that the hotel chain would need to address bugs and security updates quite quickly, since the safety of guests would be at stake — and naturally the doors should be openable by more traditional means just in case.

Right now the system is being given a try at the Aloft hotels in Silicon Valley in California and Harlem in New York, but if all goes well the system could be rolled out to hundreds of Starwood hotels around the world.

Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is