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Google Testing On-Body Detection Tool For Android Smartphones

With Google's new On-Body Detection Tool, Android phones will remain unlocked as long as they are in your hand or pocket. However, there are security concerns.
Shadow IT: 8 Ways To Cope
Shadow IT: 8 Ways To Cope
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Google is slowly testing a new way for users to unlock their Android smartphones. Using the phone's accelerometer, the On-Body Detection tool will prevent devices from locking if they sense they are being carried around.

The idea is meant to improve convenience, but it comes at the cost of security.

On-Body Detection is being added to the Smart Lock features found in Android 5.0 or Lollipop. The goal is to prevent the device from locking while the phone is on your person.

Let's face it, unlocking your phone every time you want to use it can be a pain. With On-Body Detection enabled, owners unlock their phone once and it will then remain unlocked as long it is held or stuffed into a pocket. As soon as the phone is set down, such as on a desk at the office, it automatically relocks. The feature is appearing on select Nexus devices running Android 5.0.2 and was first noticed by Android Police.

Earlier this month, I traveled to Barcelona to attend the Mobile World Congress trade show. As many will attest from personal experience, the city is rife with expert pickpockets. I lost my smartphone to a pickpocket while walking home one evening. Thank goodness I keep my device locked at all times. With a password blocking the thief from accessing the device, all my personal information was kept safe. I was able to wipe the device remotely once I returned to my hotel room.

Had I used On-Body Detection, however, my phone would have been left entirely open for plundering.

Google explains, "If you unlock your device and hand it to someone else, your device also stays unlocked as long as the other person continues to hold or carry it."

In other words, if the phone is kept unlocked in your pocket or purse, it will remain unlocked even if snatched by a thief. On-Body Detection is relying solely on movement data from the accelerometer to keep the device unlocked. The accelerometer cannot differentiate between the rightful owner and someone else. As such, it's a compromised solution.

[Read about the history of smartphones.]

Android already offers a number of other tools for convenient unlocking that are inherently more secure. Two of the best Smart Lock features are Trusted Devices and Trusted Places. With Trusted Devices enabled, Android phones can be set to automatically unlock when they are in proximity to another device, such as an Android Wear smartwatch. In order for this to work, the user needs to pair and connect the devices at least once, and then give the phone permission to unlock when it's near the watch. Trusted Places relies on predetermined locations, such as your home or office, to unlock the phone. Trusted Faces, a third option, uses your face as the unlocking tool, but it's not as reliable.

While it's up to individuals to balance the level of security versus convenience that best suits them, businesses should require employees to keep their devices locked at all times. On-Body Detection doesn't seem a good fit for enterprise security.

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