Have Anti-Theft Efforts for Smartphones Failed?

smartphones in store

There has been a heated discussion in our forums on how to tame the phone-snatching vice that keeps getting worse every passing day. It is so bad that hardly a month goes by without a friend or colleague falls into the artistry of the ever-cunning phone thieves in our streets. In light of these concerns, I will shed light on a few issues that have not been captured in the forum, which we recommend you go through.

As a recap, Android as a smartphone OS and several OEMs have been hard at work to provide solutions to mitigate this situation by baking in-house anti-theft solutions for Android phones. Anti-theft apps and features are not in short supply, but only a handful of these solutions are reliable as we initially discussed here.

Notably, an in-house remedy such as Sony’s My Xperia Theft Protection (MXTP) has proved its reliability, owing to the fact that it is built on the phone’s boot-loader. In other words, if a thief attempts to flash the device with a copy of an operating system (which is what most thieves do to legitimize stolen phones), the device will go into a lock-down mode and deactivate the USB port, leaving you with a shiny, expensive brick. Neat!

However, as much as we appreciate these efforts, the other side of things paints different picture. The reluctance of OEMs to bake robust anti-theft measures into their phones has always made it easy for phone thieves to evade authorities. For instance, it has always been pointed out that the lock-screen should disable triggering of the notification shade. In a way, this is a valid assertion since a thief can switch the phone into airplane mode, rendering attempts to locate the phone remotely useless.

Notification shade is accessible in the lockscreen until you deactivate it.

Several android forums have discussed some suggestions to fight the anti-theft concerns. One of such remedies is the use of fingerprint scanners to approve powering off a device.  Understandably, an extra step is added in performing this action, but it is good practice to have such an option. Unfortunately, this works for phones with sealed batteries and is more of a speculation than a feature that is viable for implementation.

At the same time, power-users have gone out of their way to devise ways to handle this nightmare. For instance, you can root your phone, install an Xposed module that deactivates the power button. By the same token, root access allows access to the system partition where hardware keys can be remapped to frustrate a thief from powering off a stolen phone.

If these measures sound extreme for you, there is always the option of tracing your phone with Google Dashboard which is tied to your Google account. Once you have logged in to the site, you will see devices that are connected to your account and their corresponding International Mobile Identity (IMEI) Numbers. Regardless of what a thief does to your handheld, you can always see a map and address of where the phone was last pinged, and provided it (phone) has an internet connection and location is turned on, you can wipe, lock or ring it upon establishing a successful connection.

Google Dashboard
Google Dashboard

The last and best choice is reporting your lost phone to the relevant authorities such as the police and carriers. Their tracking procedure is versatile as it involves the use of IMEI Numbers that identifies a phone ID and International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) that identifies a SIM card ID. IMSI, just like IMEI number, is a unique number that identifies a GSM and UMTS network mobile users. Now, have you ever asked yourself how carriers identify phone numbers for a stolen phone?

In a nutshell, when you insert a SIM card in a new phone and a connection is made to the service provider, the IMEI number is automatically sent to the carrier. Even when you lose your phone and a new SIM card is inserted into the device, the same IMEI Number is sent to the service provider with the new number. Through cell tower triangulation, it is easy to pinpoint the exact location of the stolen cellphone. In addition, they have the capacity to blacklist IMEI Numbers that belong to stolen devices. Some countries such as the UK have a database for lost/stolen phone IMEI Numbers, and blocks cellular access to them.

It should be noted that IMEI Numbers are written on logic boards by manufacturers. While it is possible to re-write/change IMEIs, only relevant and authorized bodies have the tools and mandate to do so. It criminal to perform or attempt to do so without authorization from OEMs or any other licensed body.