Google turns to AI to protect users from mobile phone thefts

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Google said it would use artificial intelligence to detect when Android smartphones have been snatched and quickly lock the screen, as technology groups move to protect sensitive data amid reports of rising mobile phone theft.

The Silicon Valley giant announced on Wednesday its new “theft prevention lock”, powered by Google AI, which will be activated if the device detects “a common motion associated with theft” — such as if a thief takes a phone from an owner’s hand and attempts to run, cycle, or drive away with it.

The measure is part of Google’s efforts to reduce incentives for criminals to steal phones in order to profit from the sensitive financial information and personal data stored on mobile devices, as well as the value of the physical handset.

The feature will be rolled out later this year to devices running later Android operating systems.

British police are dealing with the highest recorded level of “theft from the person” offences in 20 years, according to the latest official figures for England and Wales. Incidents of the crime — in which items are taken from people without the threat or use of violence, often through pickpocketing or snatching — rose 18 per cent in 2023.

One in three items stolen in this manner is a mobile phone, according to data from the national Crime Survey.

Apple rolled out its own antitheft features in its Stolen Device Protection update earlier in 2024.

The update to iOS was designed to prevent thieves from making critical security changes, such as accessing stored passwords and credit cards and changing an Apple ID. The feature works even if a passcode is stolen, as it implements additional security requirements if a user’s iPhone is in an unfamiliar location.

Apple’s additional measures include requiring biometric authentication — with no fallback passcode option — and, in some cases, introducing an hour-long time lag for important security actions.

Google’s latest upgrades to Android also include additional layers of security before allowing users to change sensitive settings, reset a device following a complete factory reset and disable location tracking.

The company said requiring device or Google account credentials to reset a mobile phone following a factory reset would make a stolen phone “unsellable” and put off criminals.

The new measures also include a designated “private space” — locked with a separate PIN — to offer extra protection for apps containing sensitive personal data. It is already possible for Android owners to use third-party services to lock individual apps with a PIN.

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