Is a Digital Hotel Key Worth the Risk to Your Privacy?

It all comes down to convenience

Key Takeaways

  • Six Hyatt Hotels now let you unlock your room with your iPhone or Apple Watch.
  • Hyatt Hotels was hacked in 2015, and again in 2017.
  • Our phones are super convenient but leak private data.
Someone using a smartphone to unlock a hotel room door.


Folks staying at select Hyatt hotels can now use their iPhones and Apple Watches to unlock the door to their room, which means losing your 'key' is now either much harder or more traumatic when it eventually happens.

Six Hyatt hotels are participating in the program, which lets iPhone users store their room keys in the Apple Wallet app. To enter the room, you wave or tap the phone onto the reader on the lock. The trick also works with your Apple Watch if it's sharing your wallet, and you can use the same trick to enter guest-only parts of the hotel—gyms, business suites, and so on.

Like anything digital, there are upsides and downsides. However, it's pretty easy to predict that this is the future and, in this case, convenience will have an easy win, despite the risks.

"When everything that you need is on your phone, it can be quite a disadvantage as well. It is much easier to lose your phone than it is to lose your keys or wallet because you don't need to take it off your person. Your phone is also more easily stolen," professional traveler and travel writer Becky Moore told Lifewire via email.

Convenience Above All Else

Using your phone to unlock your hotel room is more convenient than using an old, worn keycard that refuses to work half the time. There is the possibility of losing it, but that's far less likely than losing your hotel keycard.

NFC... also represents another hardware component off of which tech multinationals can build and strengthen their digital ecosystems.

There are other advantages to doing it this way, too. For one, your key can be delivered to you when you book the room but only activated once you have checked in and the room is ready. Hyatt also says that if you decide to extend your stay, your key can be updated without visiting the reception desk.

It's easy to see a future where we could book, pay with Apple Pay, check-in on arrival, and get our keys automatically, all without visiting the reception desk.

This new feature works with the NFC chip in all recent iPhones. It's the same chip that lets you use Apple Pay in the supermarket, use your phone as a contactless transit pass, or use a regular credit card for contactless payments. One neat extra is that this chip keeps on working even if your iPhone's battery dies.

Hyatt's app also lets you use Bluetooth if you don't have an NFC-equipped iPhone, but it's clear that NFC is the future here and is the key (pun definitely intended) to integrating ever more services into our phones.

What Happens in Vegas

One downside of digital technology is that it's less private. If you have a regular old key, nobody knows anything about when you enter and leave your hotel room. With NFC, it's possible the hotel could track when you enter and leave your room. That's great for optimizing cleaning schedules, but it's yet another bit of your life that is now being tracked.

Using an Apple Watch to unlock a hotel room door


Even if the hotel doesn't plan anything nefarious, that data isn't safe. Hyatt got hacked in 2015, and customer credit card details "may have been" stolen. Thankfully, Hyatt learned its lesson. Or did it? No. Two years later, it happened again. Credit card data is indeed more valuable than room-occupancy data, but you shouldn't trust any big company to protect the data they hold on you.

For Hyatt or any other hotel chain that uses the same phone-unlocking tech, the value of this data is pretty big.

"NFC enables automatic digital connections, which can be intentional, frictionless, and value-creating. It also represents another hardware component off of which tech multinationals can build and strengthen their digital ecosystems," tech consultant and wearables expert David Pring-Mill told Lifewire via email.

As mentioned, there are practical benefits to knowing when a room is occupied, but this data could be tied into hotel loyalty programs and so on. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but yet another example of how valuable your data is when aggregated.

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