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Lookout's latest feature puts phone thieves on alert

Philip Michaels | May 29, 2014
As sensible an idea as a mandatory kill switch feature would be for mobile devices, the people behind the Lookout security app for iOS and Android think that it's not the only thing you can do to safeguard your smartphone from theft.

As sensible an idea as a mandatory kill switch feature would be for mobile devices, the people behind the Lookout security app for iOS and Android think that it's not the only thing you can do to safeguard your smartphone from theft.

A kill switch would allow mobile device owners to disable a lost or stolen phone, essentially turning it into a useless brick. That's fine if the phone has fallen into the wrong hands and can't be recovered, notes Greg Lou, senior product manager for Lookout's consumer team. But it's overkill if there's a chance of you finding your lost phone. What Lookout hopes to do is offer an intermediate step to phone owners that's not nearly so permanent as flipping a kill switch.

"We think [a kill switch feature] is a good thing if done properly," Lou said. "But it's a last-ditch resort for people. There are other things to do before going to the nuclear option."

Lookout is introducing what it hopes is one of those things into its mobile security app. On Wednesday, the company introduced a new Theft Alerts module to both the iOS and Android versions of its flagship consumer app that send out alerts anytime there's suspicious activity involving your phone. The idea, Lou says, is to "use software to tackle the phone theft issue."

Lookout's approach with the Theft Alert feature is to identify the most common actions that thieves take when they swipe a phone and use those actions to send email alerts to phone owners. Actions that can trigger alerts include entering the wrong passcode, removing the SIM card, turning off the device, enabling Airplane mode, and attempting to disable the Lookout software installed on the phone.

When activated, Lookout's Theft Alert feature will send an email that details the suspicious activity and includes your phone's location. On Android devices, Lookout will snap a picture of whoever's fiddling with your phone using the front-facing camera; that feature isn't available to iOS users, Lou says, due to restrictions imposed by Apple. (The iOS version of Theft Alerts also limits its alert triggers to enabling Airplane mode and removing the device's SIM card.)

The email sent via Lookout's Theft Alert feature includes links to locate your device, display a message to whoever's looking at your phone, lock and wipe the phone, and download data stored on the phone to a new device. The email includes links for contacting your carrier and filing a police report as well.

A welcome part of the Theft Alert feature will be the ability to customize exactly what triggers an alert email. Frequent travelers, for example, may not want to receive a frantic email from Lookout every time they turn on Airplane Mode before a flight, just as parents of small kids don't need to be notified should their 3-year-old grab their phone and tap in the wrong passcode (though the emailed picture of the pint-sized perpetrator will likely be adorable). Lookout lets you select which activities merit an alert.

 

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