I remember being a naïve eighteen-year-old and walking into a Sydney pub with some of my newly minted University friends. We had ended up in Redfern before Redfern was a trendy place to live and I couldn’t work out why there was a guy at a table with a VCR (Video Cassette Recorder) sitting in front of him. My much worldlier companion explained to me that this device was likely stolen and he was at the pub trying to sell it. I couldn’t believe that someone could be so brazen and didn’t understand why the Police didn’t just walk in and arrest the guy! Keep in mind that a VCR was an expensive item at the time (over $2,000 in current terms) and not everyone possessed one. I came to learn more about the world and realised that there were people who would break into homes one day and the next day be at the pub selling those same items. Mind you, apart from the major ethical issues, lugging something the size of a VCR out of someone’s window and then down to the pub didn’t seem like a great way to put a few dollars in your pocket.

Fast forward to today and the world of mobile phones surely seems like rich harvesting ground for the modern equivalent of the guy at the pub selling a VCR. A phone is much smaller to carry around than a VCR and a similar price (some models retail for more than $1,500).

It may seem that way, but I think we can make it a lot harder for thieves.

If we go back to the VCR, the best way you might have had of recovering the device was if you recorded the serial number and engraved your details on the bottom of the device then you could traipse the pubs in your area hoping to spot your device. Then you had the fun of confronting a cornered thief.

With a phone, we have a much more sophisticated option. It varies slightly with different models so I will use an Apple iPhone as an example. For a start, every modern iPhone has a feature called ‘Find My iPhone’ installed by default. I highly recommend you turn this on. For a start, it allows you to locate your phone with audio and a map if you have simply misplaced it. If the phone is stolen and the thief has not turned the phone off and it is still connected to the Internet, you can track the location of the phone. This has been famously used many times to catch unsuspecting thieves. It will also give you the last location of the phone – so at least you have somewhere to start looking (presumably before the thief turned the phone off). But where it becomes much more interesting is what you can do remotely. If the phone is still on you can turn on ‘Lost Mode’ which will lock and track the phone and put contact information on the screen – in case the thief has a change of heart. You can also use the ‘Erase iPhone’ feature to completely wipe all of your data. Great to protect thieves from gaining access to your wonderful family photos (or even those slightly more compromising photos). Lastly, and this is the aspect that is the most important, with Find My iPhone turned on, the phone is completely useless to anyone else. If the thief is clever enough to reset the phone back to factory default settings, upon activation the phone contacts the Apple servers. If the phone has not had the feature turned off (by you) then the phone stays in a locked state and is useless to anyone else. Useless. Not just a few features removed or restricted in some way. Useless. Furthermore, given the fact that Apple told the FBI that they would not help them with decrypting iPhones used by criminals, I am not aware of any way that a thief can get around this activation lock. For additional good measure, if you report your stolen IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) to your carrier, that phone is then blocked by the carriers. You can also use the AMTA (Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association) Web site to check for registered stolen IMEI numbers. Add a PIN to your phone to stop a thief running up phone or data usage and all in all, I wonder why a thief would bother. Unfortunately, there are still over 200,000 mobiles lost or stolen every year in Australia but if you take full advantage of the security features that your phone offers, it makes for slim pickings for a would-be thief. The examples given are specific to an iPhone but Android phones have a range of similar features.

App of the Week this week is Slidely Show Movie Maker. It uses artificial intelligence to take the photos and videos from your phone and turn them into an impressive movie or slide show.

Mathew Dickerson

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