Lookout launches 'theftie' alerts to combat smartphone theft

The mobile security firm thinks a phone's front-facing camera can help retrieve a stolen device.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
3 min read

Lookout's new "theftie" email alerts. Lookout

Here's a new twist on selfies -- and mobile security firm Lookout is hoping it might just help you get a stolen phone back.

The company on Wednesday launched a new feature to try to combat smartphone theft. Subscribers of the software suite will now get email alerts when someone does something suspicious with their phone, like entering a wrong password too many times or trying to uninstall the security software. The phone also secretly takes a photo of the person fiddling with the device using its front-facing camera, and sends the picture to the Lookout user in an email along with a map of the phone's location.

The picture, of course, is not quite like a selfie -- after all, the subject isn't actually taking the photo because he or she doesn't even know it's being taken. So Lookout has dubbed another name for the snapshot: a "theftie."

"Not everyone here likes the name," said David Richardson, laughing. Richardson is Lookout's lead product manager for iOS, Apple's mobile operating system.

The new release comes as smartphone theft has become a more prevalent problem in the United States. One in ten smartphone owners in the US has had their phones stolen, according to data provided by Lookout. And one in every three robberies in the United States involves the theft of a mobile device, according to the Federal Communications Commission. In San Francisco, where Lookout is based, the mobile device theft rate has climbed to 67 percent of robberies. Across the bay in Oakland, that number jumps to more than 75 percent.

Consumer Reports says that about 1.6 million Americans were the victims of smartphone theft in 2012, and replacements of lost and stolen mobile devices that year was an estimated $30 billion business.

The theftie email alerts are part of Lookout's premium feature set, but existing free and premium users will get grandfathered into the system, Richardson said. On phones running Android, Google's mobile operating system, other triggers for the alerts are putting the phone in airplane mode, turning off the device, or removing the phone's SIM card, which holds much of the user's personal information.

On iOS, the alerts are only triggered by putting the phone in airplane mode or removing the SIM card, because of limitations developers have working with Apple's operating system.

The email alert also gives users the option to contact their carrier about the lost or stolen phone or file a police report. If users feel spammed by all the emails, they can change their settings so that only certain features trigger an alert.

Some may think that the phone taking a secret photo is a breach of privacy. Richardson said the actions that go into triggering the snapshot justify having the photo taken, and the thefties are simply "reactive." He notes that the five triggers -- entering a wrong password, removing a SIM card, uninstalling security software, putting the device on airplane mode, and turning off the device -- are what most thieves typically do right after stealing a phone.

Of course, the alerts aren't perfect. For example, if a thief is holding the phone at an awkward angle, the device may not get a clear picture. And the wireless connection could cut out before Lookout gets the chance to send the alert.

During a demo at Lookout headquarters, my "theftie" didn't produce the clearest result. Lookout

Lookout's email alerts are just the latest example of companies using software to try to curb smartphone theft. Lawmakers have been clamoring to mandate the inclusion of so-called kill switches on smartphones, which would render the devices inoperable if stolen. Earlier this month, Minnesota became the first state in the US to pass a kill-switch bill. Also this month, a similar bill passed in the California state Senate.

Samsung and Apple, the No. 1 and No. 2 largest smartphone makers in the world, already offer antitheft software to users of their devices. In September, Apple added "activation lock," a feature that makes it harder for someone to use a stolen iPhone. The program requires a user's Apple ID and password before he or she can turn off the phone's location tracking or reactivate a locked phone. Last month, Samsung, maker of the popular Galaxy smartphone line, launched "reactivation lock," which prevents a locked phone from being made operable again, even through a factory reset.