Google Testing On-Body Detection Tool For Android Smartphones - InformationWeek

InformationWeek is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Mobile // Mobile Applications
12:05 PM
Eric Zeman
Eric Zeman

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
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

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.

Attend Interop Las Vegas, the leading independent technology conference and expo series designed to inspire, inform, and connect the world's IT community. In 2015, look for all new programs, networking opportunities, and classes that will help you set your organization’s IT action plan. It happens April 27 to May 1. Register with Discount Code MPOIWK for $200 off Total Access & Conference Passes.

Eric is a freelance writer for InformationWeek specializing in mobile technologies. View Full Bio
We welcome your comments on this topic on our social media channels, or [contact us directly] with questions about the site.
Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
User Rank: Ninja
3/30/2015 | 3:28:42 PM
Look for an increase in butt dials
Great so now my butt dials are all but insured to happen and when my kids reach for my phone they can just start playing candy crush and streaming videos. This is silly. It takes a single swipe to unlock your phone (or two or three small motions if you actually put a security feature on your phone.) It's less than a second. Have we really become this crazed for instant gratification that we can't wait half a second for our phone when we get it out of our pocket? One of the reasons I like my phone locked is if I accidently bunp it in my purse, I know I'm not accidently calling Bejing. I also know when my kids have my phone so they aren't calling Bejing, or racking up data usage like it's going out of style. i'll take a locking phone, thank you.
User Rank: Ninja
3/28/2015 | 3:02:51 PM
Re: Asking for trouble
This on-body detection tool is ridiculous! I don't want my phone unlocked when it's in my purse! It could be calling Peru in there! Why doesn't Google just have a fingerprint ID system like Apple?
User Rank: Strategist
3/25/2015 | 1:48:36 PM
Re: Asking for trouble
I'd also give this a thumbs-down. I'm so used to typing a passcode on my iPhone that it's basic instinct. Small price to pay for better security.
Susan Fourtané
Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
3/25/2015 | 5:55:01 AM
Re: Asking for trouble

I also find Apple's Touch ID a great way to unlock my devices. When I use my iPad I have to unlock it quite frequently if I am working with it and with the Mac at the same time. Entering the passcode every time to my previous iPad was really annoying.

But, this on-body detection for Android sounds quite silly, especially if what you want is to only be yourself the one who accesses your device. Let alone a case when a parasite pickpocket steals your device as it happened to Eric in Barcelona.

Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
3/24/2015 | 11:53:20 AM
Re: Asking for trouble
I find that Apple's Touch ID is an improvement over password entry every time I access my phone.
User Rank: Ninja
3/23/2015 | 2:27:35 PM
Asking for trouble
I agree. On-Body Detection is nothing but a way to sacrifice security for convenience. Why won't people ever learn? Is it so hard to type in a password?
Future IT Teams Will Include More Non-Traditional Members
Lisa Morgan, Freelance Writer,  4/1/2020
COVID-19: Using Data to Map Infections, Hospital Beds, and More
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor, Enterprise Apps,  3/25/2020
Enterprise Guide to Robotic Process Automation
Cathleen Gagne, Managing Editor, InformationWeek,  3/23/2020
White Papers
Register for InformationWeek Newsletters
Current Issue
IT Careers: Tech Drives Constant Change
Advances in information technology and management concepts mean that IT professionals must update their skill sets, even their career goals on an almost yearly basis. In this IT Trend Report, experts share advice on how IT pros can keep up with this every-changing job market. Read it today!
Flash Poll