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Apps bring lock and key into the digital age

By Natasha Baker

TORONTO (Reuters) - The lock and key has been a mainstay of security for thousands of years, but companies developing new apps are bringing them into the digital age, allowing people to share keys digitally and gain keyless access to homes.

KeyMe, an app for the iPhone, aims to modernize the way spare keys are stored, and how copies are shared with family and friends. With KeyMe, home owners can photograph their keys, which the app converts into instructions that a locksmith can follow to replicate the key.

"When you get locked out, instead of waiting for a few hours and spending hundreds of dollars for a locksmith, you can go to your local mom and pop shop and pull up instructions for them to make a copy of your key," said Greg Marsh, chief executive officer of KeyMe, based in New York.

Digital keys can also be shared with others, such as a new roommate or out-of-town guest. The app, available in the United States is free, but instructions for replicating the key cost $9.99 and copies of keys can also be ordered for up to $7.

Other apps use the smartphone as a digital key that can unlock doors.

Lockitron, for iPhone and Android, and the apps Kevo and August for the iPhone, pair with digital devices that are attached to existing locks or replace locks to provide keyless entry, and allow home owners to remotely control who can enter their homes.

"Just say you have a dog-walker, or maybe your parents are in town for the weekend. You can provide them with temporary access to your home through the app," said Cameron Robertson, co-founder of Apigy, creators of the Lockitron, based in Mountain View, California.

The apps connect with the locks through low-energy Bluetooth technology to unlock doors if users are authorized. They can also notify a home owner when someone enters and leaves a home. The devices linked to the apps control existing deadbolts or act as a digital deadbolt.

But not all security experts are convinced.

"I have reservations considering the results of my research showing that these types of devices tend to be vulnerable," said Daniel Crowley, a researcher at Chicago-based security company Trustwave.

Creators of the apps said security is a top priority and the companies encrypt the communications. Kwikset, which makes and markets door locks and hardware, has hired security experts to unearth vulnerabilities, and KeyMe does not store any personal information, such as location, with key images.

"This is a new product category so we have to prove to consumers that this is something they can trust," said Jason Johnson, CEO of San-Francisco company August.

The apps and the devices they pair with range in price from $179 to $219.

But will keys ever disappear?

"There's no doubt about it that the electronic space is growing significantly but I still think keys will be out there for a while," said Marty Hoffmann, vice president of marketing at Kwikset, based in Lake Forest, California.

"There's a reason they've been the dominant technology for thousands of years," said Marsh.

(Editing by Patricia Reaney; Editing by Leslie Gevirtz)

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