Google testing anti-theft feature that uses AI to block thieves who snatch Android phones, can YOU update?

a hand holds a smartphone with the android operating system logo pictured on screen

Google has started to beta test a new Artificial Intelligence feature that automatically detects when thieves have snatched the phone from your hand

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Aaron Brown

By Aaron Brown


Published: 14/06/2024

- 05:01

AI will detect if your Android smartphone has been snatched from your hand

  • Google is beta testing its next major feature, Theft Detection Lock feature
  • Small trial has started in Brazil, and any Android users can register to join in
  • Almost one million devices were stolen in Brazil in 2022 alone
  • Google created feature after feedback from staff in London and other cities
  • Coming to Android 15, it works out if your phone has been grabbed by a thief
  • It can automatically lock your handset, requiring a PIN to unlock again
  • After successful testing, Theft Detection Lock will launch later this year

Google has started to test its incoming Theft Detection Lock feature, announced during its Google I/O developer conference last month, with Android smartphone owners in Brazil.

The South American country is a hotbed for phone theft — with one million mobiles stolen within a year in 2022, data from Brazil Forum on Public Safety shows. That's 1.9 phones stolen every minute.


In fact, Google engineers started to work on the functionality, which is powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI), because of feedback from its users and employees in Sao Paolo, Brazil and London, UK.

settings screen in android showing how to enable Theft Detection Lock feature

Google confirmed plans to test Theft Detection Lock in Sao Paulo, Brazil before anywhere else in the world due to the high rates of phone theft in the city — something that led to its original inception

GOOGLE PRESS OFFICE

Beta tests are designed to iron out any bugs or issues in new software. There's no word on whether those in the UK will get early access to Theft Detection Lock to help Google solve any problems, but those in Brazil can already register their interest to take part. Announcing the first beta test, Google said: "Brazilian user feedback inspired these anti-theft features, and the country will be the first to test them out."

Google is using a complex AI model to detect jerky motion and sudden acceleration that might suggest your smartphone has been snatched from your hand. When that happens, Android 15 will automatically lock the screen to prevent thieves from being able to access anything on the device.

Thieves often snatch phones from people's hands when they're in use — so the screen is unlocked, allowing access to contacts, payment details, social media accounts, and much more.

With the screen locked, thieves will need a fingerprint scan, facial scan, correct password or PIN to access the contents of the phone. It will also block criminals from resetting the handset to sell on the second-hand market.

Google said its AI has been taught to detect “common motion associated with theft” by reading signals from the device, such as the accelerometer reading the sudden jolt of someone on a bike snatching a phone from a user’s hand and then moving off at high speed, to instantly lock the device.

It will be joined by a range of tools to better secure and hide apps which may contain sensitive data that would be of interest to thieves, as well as features to simplify the ability to lock a phone remotely after it's been stolen.

Android Vice President of Engineering, Dave Burke said the new theft detection tool had in part been inspired by feedback it had received from staff and users in Sao Paolo, Brazil, and London, where he said high levels of phone theft were being reported.

“Some pretty scary statistics I learned fairly recently (were that) in Sao Paolo, a phone is stolen every five minutes, and in London a phone is stolen every six minutes,” he said. “That is a really serious issue, and we started thinking about it, what we can do, and we started studying (the issue).”

LATEST DEVELOPMENTS

Google studied videos of phone thefts carried out on bikes to develop the new feature, Mr Burke added.

In October last year, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley, and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan held a meeting with tech companies – including Google, about phone companies doing more to help combat phone theft after a rise in incidents in the capital over the previous 12 months.

The new feature is being joined by other tools Google said “strengthen your device’s security against theft with new and improved protection features that will make thieves think twice about trying”.

It includes a new Private Space tool, which lets users create a separate area within their phone to place apps which contain sensitive data – such as banking apps – and can be hidden and locked with a separate pin.

In addition, Google is introducing a new Remote Lock feature, which allows users to lock their device remotely, using only their phone number and an additional pre-set security question.

Google said allowing this process to be carried out using a phone number was because “many users are shocked and stressed after a phone goes missing and can’t recall their Google account password”, which is used to access the Find My Device app where phones can be remotely locked.

The Californian technology giant announced it would also roll out new on-device AI tools that would detect apps that might be engaging in fraud. The live threat detection tools will analyse how apps act and use the permissions given to them by users to monitor if they are engaging in suspicious behaviour, alerting both users and Google is any such activity is spotted.

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