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How to Track Your Smartphone’s Final Moments

It’s a lot harder to find your lost smartphone if the battery is dead. A new app can tell you its last known whereabouts.
October 9, 2012

As smartphones become more popular and useful, it becomes increasingly inconvenient to lose one. And if there’s one thing worse than losing your phone, it’s knowing the battery’s dead so you can’t even call it. A new mobile-security app from Lookout could make it easier to find even a dead handset by automatically recording its location as its battery takes its last gasps.

The feature is called Signal Flare, and is initially available only on the free and paid versions of Lookout Mobile Security for Android devices. Signal Flare takes advantage of the automated alerts that pop up on many phones when the battery is dying, using them as a trigger to log the phone’s location via its GPS, Wi-Fi, and wireless network service capabilities and send this data to Lookout’s servers. Many phones give off two of these battery-life alerts—one when the battery is getting low, and another when it’s nearly dead.

Smartphone owners who’ve enabled Signal Flare can then see the missing gadget’s last known whereabouts on Lookout’s website. Lookout’s app has an existing phone-finding feature, called Locate, but this requires a user to initiate the location process on Lookout’s site, and won’t work if the device is switched off.

Signal Flare is part of a broader redesign of Lookout’s app, which is designed to protect devices against emerging mobile threats. The app now has a sleeker look and includes a feed that shows recent activity, such as app scans and data backups.

Since Lookout’s app launched three years ago, it has been downloaded by 25 million people. The company offers a free and a paid version of the app; the paid edition includes additional Web browsing, privacy-protection, and backup features. Both versions detect security threats by scanning the apps on your phone and checking them against a database of malware.

Lookout says that, among its users, people attempt to find a misplaced phone about once every three seconds. Since it’s harder to find a phone once it has died, it would be helpful to at least see the last place it was before it bit the dust. Signal Flare won’t log the device’s location if the phone is simply turned off, though, which a thief might do after stealing it to prevent location tracking.

Safe Dialer, another new feature in Lookout’s Android app, scans phone numbers before completing an action or making a call. Abheek Gupta, product manager for the Lookout app, says this feature is meant to protect against a new class of mobile malware referred to as dialer-based threats. Such malware can run up a hefty phone bill by automatically dialing a premium-rate number, or dial a code that performs unwelcome actions on a device.

Gupta says Lookout came up with the feature last week in response to the discovery of code that could be theoretically used to wipe some Samsung Android smartphones. Google had previously released an update to its Android software to address the issue, and Samsung has reportedly offered Galaxy S3 users a software fix for the problem.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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