This Website Shows How Bluetooth, Used in Coronavirus Tracing, Is Everywhere

Security researcher and artist Claudio Guarnieri setup a device to see just how congested the Bluetooth space really is.
April 21, 2020, 12:00pm
BLE ATLAS
Image: Screenshot of Claudio Guarnieri's BLE ATLAS website.

Several governments and tech companies are building apps or systems to help trace contact between people potentially spreading the coronavirus, and warning them about what next steps to take. Some of them rely on Bluetooth Low Energy, which lets devices within close proximity communicate with one another.

But the Bluetooth space may be more crowded than you realize, with all sorts of devices beaconing themselves, as demonstrated by a recent digital art project.

"This is a broadcast from a sensor that I am running. It's sort of a livestream of where I am," security researcher and artist Claudio Guarnieri told Motherboard in an online chat.

When a user opens up the website, called BLE ATLAS, it presents them with a stream of what Guarnieri's own Bluetooth beacon sees. When Motherboard viewed the site on Monday, that included a flurry of Apple, Microsoft, and Samsung products.

"This started as my own exploration into BLE. What I found was a much more crowded space than I anticipated, with plenty of malformed transmissions and inconsistent properties," Guarnieri added.

Do you work at Google or Apple? Do you know anything else about the planned contact-tracing feature? We'd love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on jfcox@jabber.ccc.de, or email joseph.cox@vice.com.

Guarnieri said the beacon is physically located in Berlin, and the visualization is already a filtered representation of his actual surroundings, as BLE ATLAS only deals with broadcasts in Apple and Google specifications, as well as those which are not malformed or immediate duplicates. This month Apple and Google announced their creation of a system that governments can build apps on top of to help contact tracing through Bluetooth Low Energy.

Guarnieri's project is visually interesting and provides some insight into how congested the Bluetooth space can be, but it is hard to foresee how effective actual implementations of Bluetooth-based, contact tracing solutions will be until more roll out. Apple and Google's system will require states to conduct more robust testing for coronavirus, for instance.

Guarnieri said he won't keep the project running permanently, as it takes up a modest amount of energy and bandwidth.

Guarnieri added, "I imagine many like me are finding themselves wanting to understand better this new old space we are asked to be tracked on."

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