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The latest version of Android, nicknamed Lollipop, will offer a new feature that could make stolen phones a whole lot less valuable to thieves: the ability to only allow factory resets when accompanied by a password.
TechHive reports that “lawmakers are celebrating it as a key piece of the smartphone ‘kill switch’ measures they’ve been pushing for”, as requiring a password to wipe a handset should in theory ensure that the value of a stolen smartphone to a thief is a lot lower than it would be if they could guarantee a quick and easy reset.
While Android users can already lock, wipe or locate a lost phone on the internet using Android Device Manager, the platform currently offers nothing to prevent a thief removing all traces of its original owner from the handset, providing the owner has no lock screen security in place. It’s an additional layer of protection which will hopefully see mobile phones as a less obvious target for theft.
However, there is still a catch that means the change is not an unambiguously positive step: the feature is opt-in only, so while it’s good news for your own peace of mind, it doesn’t necessarily prevent your phone being targeted by thieves. Or as Forbes puts it: “opt-in does nothing for deterrence. Not enough users enable the optional feature, so thieves still think they have a good chance of nabbing a vulnerable phone — and yours, even if it’s safe, might be targeted anyway.”
The San Francisco District Attorney George Gacsón and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, welcomed the move, but echoed this concern in a joint statement: “In order for these theft-deterrents to effectively end the epidemic, they must be enabled by default so violent criminals lack the incentive to steal any smartphone. We will continue to encourage every actor in the smartphone industry – including Google – to take the necessary, additional step of ensuring this technology is opt-out on all devices.”
Nonetheless it is a positive move, with The Verge reporting that Apple’s introduction of similar security to iPhones having a marked effect on theft of the smartphones: “since Apple added various theft protections to iOS, Gascón and Schneiderman say that they’ve seen thefts of iPhones plummet”. Microsoft has promised to add a kill switch feature to Windows Phone too, so hopefully the incentive for criminals to target mobile phones of all manufacturers will be markedly reduced over the next few months.
George Dolgikh / Shutterstock.com
Author Alan Martin, ESET