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Say Hello to the ‘Theftie’

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Say Hello to the ‘Theftie’

Mobile phone theft is a serious problem, and while a number of measures have been suggested to counter this from registration systems to remote smartphone kill-switches, one of the best methods may already be in our phones right now. Lookout, a firm specializing in security and ads removal, recently launched a new feature geared toward using that method to take down mobile device thieves using a method it calls the “theftie.”

Those who subscribe to Lookout’s software suite already get some impressive features, but now, there’s a bit of an extra benefit here. Should a device be stolen, and said thief tries to do something suspicious with said device, the device will not only fire off an email alert, but it will also take a picture using the front-facing camera and then send that off as well along with a map of the phone’s current location. That picture—a sort of unexpected selfie for thieves—is being called the “theftie”, a name that’s not universally well-received within Lookout.

As for what constitutes “something suspicious,” that varies by operating system. While Android devices will get alerts for turning on a phone’s airplane mode, turning off the device, and pulling out the SIM card, iOS devices will only issue alerts for airplane mode activation and SIM card removal, due to, at last report, limitations within iOS itself. There’s also a provision, at last report, for things like inputting the wrong password too many times or trying to uninstall activated security software, and users have some control over just what behaviors will trigger an alert lest the whole thing start to feel a bit too much like spam. Naturally, the alerts aren’t foolproof, and largely depend on the thief holding the phone just right to take a legible theftie, and the phone having access to some breed of wireless connection.

Given that, according to data offered up by Lookout, 10 percent of smartphone owners have had a phone stolen, it’s clear that there’s an issue here. The Federal Communications Commission chips in by noting that one in three robberies in the United States involvesmobile device theft—though that number goes much higher depending on location, up to around 75 percent of robberies in Oakland and 67 percent in San Francisco—that only serves to underline the severity of the problem.

Give Lookout due credit for trying to take on the problem of mobile device theft, but its approach seems to be a bit too limited to do a whole lot of damage to the mobile theft problem. Too much depends on specific triggers and environment; if that thief gets the phone out into the middle of nowhere, or even into a building or basement where a signal can’t reach, Lookout is suddenly blinded. With mobile device makers starting to include security mechanisms onboard the devices—Apple has its “activation lock” which requires an Apple ID and password to reactivate a locked device, and Samsung  has its “reactivation lock” which prevents unlocking locked devices even with a factory reset—the problem may well drop in severity on its own.

Still, any method to protect a mobile device is one worth considering, and Lookout’s thefties may go a long way in terms of preventing theft. Only time will tell just how well it works, though, especially given the growing number of ways there are to protect a mobile device.

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