Published April 10, 2013
Michael "Don't drink the Big Gulp" Bloomberg may be a bit of a Pollyanna, but there's one thing the mayor of New York City is right about: smartphone thefts are today's version of chain snatching. An epidemic? Perhaps. But certainly deterring such thefts would be a good thing.
While there's still no foolproof way to protect your phone (or you) from a mugging, there is a growing trend toward better solutions that one day may mean the end of smartphone thefts.
Locate-and-track programs are available for every stripe of phone. Apple has a free Find My iPhone app, for example, that lets you use another iOS device to locate a missing phone. It can also sound a pinging alert, display a message to any erstwhile crook--or good Samaritan--or erase all the personal information on your iPhone remotely.
For Android users there's the popular security app Lookout. The free version of the software can target your device on Google Maps, scream to alert you if it's nearby (even in silent mode), send you its last know location if the battery is about to die, and also perform remote locking or the deletion of data.
(One caveat about any tracking software is that there are no specific laws relating to how or with whom this information might be used in the future. But even so, the trade off between privacy and security seems worth it.)
In addition to backup and malware scanning, Lookout also recently added a stealth camera function that will e-mail you a picture of anyone who tries unsuccessfully to unlock your phone three times. (Several other apps offer this, and a journalist from Mexico City put me on to the $1.99 GotYa! app, which I've also used successfully.)
This last feature raises the essential point that anyone who owns a smartphone should lock it with a password. And not with the sort of password that kids on shows like Shake It Up ridicule (hint: "1,1,1,1" is not a good password). Not only is the lack of a security code an open invitation to folks to snoop on you, it also means that once someone turns on the phone, they can delete most tracking and remote wipe programs, include Apple's app and Lookout. (There are other security programs that attempt to conceal themselves, but professional criminals who know what to look for can defeat those too.)
Ideally, an embedded security program that could not be deleted would be best. In fact, one company, Absolute Software, makers of the Lojack for Laptops, recently proposed just that. Its tracking software will be embedded in the firmware of new Samsung Galaxy devices beginning in May as part of Samsung's Knox security solution. The Samsung initiative is aimed at buttoning down some of Android's security issues in order to make its phones even more appealing to corporate computing departments.
According to John Livingston, the CEO of Absolute, the software will call home if someone tried to tamper with or delete the visible app. "Physically locate and recover, that's our mission," he told FoxNews.com. The company will help owners file a theft report and work with local law enforcement.
Absolute uses GPS data, Wi-Fi network information, and IP (Internet Protocol) addressing to determine where a phone is, but since the new embedded version will only work on one brand of phone to begin with, it's not much of a deterrent (well, at least not in New York City). Better would be a digital version of the old locking steering wheel bars that used to be a prerequisite to New York City car ownership; although people still smashed windows to steal anything visible inside the car.
To really stop smartphone muggings, there need to be industry-wide systems in place that prevent smartphone users from becoming targets by making it all but impossible to use a stolen phone. The wireless carriers may be slowly getting to that point. AT&T points out that it now has a stolen phone database that not only allows customers to block a purloined device but also enables AT&T to share that information with other GSM carriers.
Taking the idea one step further, the CTIA Wireless Association trade group and major U.S. carriers are working to complete a database for GSM and LTE phones that would prevent a reported stolen device from being reactivated. So there would no longer be a market for stolen phones since they would be virtually useless. The database is scheduled to go live this coming November.
All of this is not to discount the many stories of good Samaritans returning lost phones, even going out of their way to FedEx them back to their owners. Each time that happens to a friend or business associate, it renews my trust in the human race.
Unfortunately, sometimes that trust needs a little security boost.