Apple’s iPhone has a “kill switch,” and it’s already reducing smartphone theft. Google has announced they’ll be adding a kill switch to Android. Until it arrives, you can still secure your Android device by enabling remote locking and wiping features.
Kill Switches Vs. Remote Wiping
Here’s how the kill switch works on an iPhone. Assuming you enable Find My iPhone, you can log into Apple’s Find My iPhone website and track your phone if you lose it. Enable “Lost Mode” and the phone will be locked and unusable, with a message of your choice displayed on your screen. Crucially, the “Lost Mode” and “Find My iPhone” features work even after the thief factory-resets the device. The device is unusable until you deactivate the kill switch, so the thief won’t be able to sell it — except maybe for spare parts.
Android devices can be tracked, locked, and wiped remotely, but Google’s solution doesn’t survive a factory reset. A thief can steal an Android phone, reset it, and they’ll have a like-new phone. You can’t permanently disable the device remotely, although you can at least erase your personal data.
Android Device Manager
For now, all Android devices have access to Google’s Android Device Manager. Unlike third-party tracking solutions, this solution is completely free and already installed on your phone. You can use your existing Google account for this, so you don’t have to set up yet another account. It’s the ideal Android phone-tracking solution for most people.
Open the app drawer on your Android device and launch the Google Settings app. Tap Android Device Manager and enable the “Remotely locate this device” and “Allow remote lock and factory reset” checkboxes to activate this feature. Anyone with your Google account will be able to remotely track your device, lock, or reset it — so be sure to create a secure password.
If your Android is stolen or lost, you can visit the Google Play Store website, click the gear button, and select Android Device Manager. You can also just access the Android Device Manager website directly. If you want to track your Android device from another Android device, you can install the Android Device Manager app.
Google doesn’t keep a location history — it requests your device’s location when you sign in and discards it when you sign out. If the device has already been powered off, reset, or doesn’t have a Wi-Fi or cellular data connection, you won’t be able to track it. You can ring your device at full volume for five minutes to find it nearby, lock it with a new password, or erase the entire device and its data.
These features are useful, but even after you take the most drastic measures — a remote wipe — the thief will end up with a fresh, like-new phone they can use or sell. Yes, a thief can wipe a device even if it’s locked and they don’t know your password.
Other Android anti-theft solutions have more features, such as the ability to take photos of a thief, display messages on the device’s screen, and have the device regularly check in and report its location so you can view it later.
Survive A Factory Reset With Root Access
Some Android device tracking solutions can survive a factory reset. They do this by using root access to install themselves on the system partition, so they persist even after a factory reset wipes the user data. To do this, you’ll need to root your Android.
Avast! Anti-Theft provides this feature, and it’s free. You have to install the Anti-Theft (rooted) app and go through the installation wizard to set this up. After you have, you can remotely lock your device and set an on-screen message, asking anyone with the device to please return it to you. The thief will have a useless phone that informs people it’s stolen — almost like how iOS’s kill switch works.
A knowledgeable thief could actually wipe the device completely — for example, they could re-flash the device’s operating system or install a custom ROM. But not every thief will know how to do this.
None of these solutions are quite as good as a kill switch integrated at a system level. They’ll help you locate a lost device and restrict access to your personal data, but they don’t stop a thief from wiping it and selling your phone. Even an app that burrows deep into the system with root access can be removed if a thief really knows what they’re doing.
Still, while we wait for an official kill switch, they’ll have to do.