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Google Tests AI-Powered Anti-Theft Feature for Android Phones

TL;DR: Google is beta testing its AI-powered Theft Detection Lock feature in Brazil, where phone theft is rampant. The feature detects jerky motions and sudden acceleration associated with theft, automatically locking the screen to prevent access. Additional security features include Private Space, Remote Lock, and on-device AI tools to detect fraudulent apps. After successful testing, the feature will launch later this year as part of Android 15.

AI to Detect Phone Snatching

Google is beta testing its upcoming Theft Detection Lock feature, announced during its Google I/O developer conference last month, with Android smartphone owners in Brazil.

Brazil: A Hotbed for Phone Theft

Brazil is a hotspot for phone theft, with one million mobiles stolen in 2022 alone, according to data from the Brazil Forum on Public Safety. That’s 1.9 phones stolen every minute.

Shocking statistics.

Inspired by User Feedback

Google engineers started working on this AI-powered functionality due to feedback from users and employees in Sao Paolo, Brazil, and London, UK.

Beta Testing in Brazil

Beta tests are designed to iron out any bugs or issues in new software. While there’s no word on whether UK users will get early access to help Google solve any problems, those in Brazil can already register their interest to participate.

Google said, “Brazilian user feedback inspired these anti-theft features, and the country will be the first to test them out.”

How Theft Detection Lock Works

Google’s complex AI model detects 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 accessing anything on the device.

Thieves often snatch phones when they’re in use, and the screen is unlocked, allowing access to sensitive information like contacts, payment details, and social media accounts.

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

Detecting Common Theft Motions

Google’s 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.

Additional Security Features

The Theft Detection Lock will be joined by a range of tools to better secure and hide apps containing sensitive data that would interest thieves, as well as features to simplify the ability to lock a phone remotely after it’s been stolen.

Inspired by Staff and User Feedback

Android Vice President of Engineering, Dave Burke, said the new theft detection tool had been partly inspired by feedback from staff and users in Sao Paolo, Brazil, and London, where 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).”

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

Combating Phone Theft in London

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.

New Features to Strengthen Device Security

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:

  1. Private Space tool: Allows users to create a separate area within their phone to place apps containing sensitive data (e.g., banking apps) that can be hidden and locked with a separate pin.
  2. Remote Lock feature: Enables users to lock their device remotely, using only their phone number and an additional pre-set security question. This is 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.
  3. On-device AI tools: Detects apps that might be engaging in fraud by analyzing how apps act and use the permissions given to them by users to monitor for suspicious behaviour, alerting both users and Google if any such activity is spotted.

After successful testing, Theft Detection Lock will launch later this year.


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