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Is Android’s Smart Lock security worth the convenience?

April 23, 2015, 3:05 PM UTC
Google Nexus 6 phone.
Google Nexus 6 phone.
Courtesy: Google

Securing a mobile phone often results in being subjected to an annoying, repetitive regime each and every time—that’s if you bothered to actually set up the security features at all.

Many of you know the routine: After waking your phone, you enter a four-digit code or connect random dots on the screen to unlock your device over and over again throughout the day.

Google’s mobile operating system Android Lollipop hopes to eliminate these security annoyances with a new feature called Smart Lock. Smart Lock contains four different settings, each one designed for use in a situation where it’s safe (in theory) for your phone to be unlocked. You can find the new settings on any Android device running Lollipop under Security.

Trusted places

The trusted places component of Smart Lock will keep your device unlocked when at an address of your choice. It can be your home, office, a relative’s house or wherever you’re most comfortable with your device not requiring a password.

Remember, when your device is unlocked anyone can use it to access messages, emails, photos and whatever else is on the device. In other words, enabling this feature if you work in a large office probably isn’t the best idea and better suited for home.

Trusted devices

When connecting your phone to a Bluetooth accessory, you’re given the option to designate the device as a trusted source. Afterwards, your device will remain unlocked as long as it’s connected. It’s a convenient feature I use daily by pairing my Android device with my car’s Bluetooth connection, where I know my phone is safe.

The same practice applies when your phone is paired with a smartwatch. If you’re close enough for the watch and phone to be connected it will stay unlocked.

Keep in mind, Bluetooth has a range of 100 meters (per Google’s warning when enabling the feature). This means if you leave your phone on at a restaurant table and go to the restroom, it’s possible your device will stay unlocked and end up easy prey for thieves.

On-body detection

The most recent addition to the Smart Lock feature is the on-body detection option. The feature uses motions sensors inside the phone to keep it ready for use when it’s in your hand, pocket or purse. Once the phone detects you’ve stopped moving or is placed on a stationary object it automatically re-locks.

The security feature, while extremely convenient, does have security drawbacks. the phone can’t determine whether or not you’re in control of the device, so if you lend the device to a friend or it’s stolen it will remain unlocked.

Trusted faces

In lieu of a Bluetooth connection or a safe location, adding a trusted face is another option for unlocking your phone. The operating system uses facial recognition through the front-facing camera to disable the lock screen.

Face detection is a sci-fi nerd’s dream, but in practice this method is far too slow to be considered convenient. Often times it’s faster, and admittedly less impressive, to enter a password to unlock your phone.

Is the trade-off worth it?

Not really, the moment you activate any of these features you’re trading security for convenience. You risk leaving your phone unlocked in a situation where it could be easily accessed by a stranger.

Being mindful of where you enable the Smart Lock features can be very useful, but is still a high price to pay for the perceived benefits. I have Smart Lock set up when I’m at home and when connected to my car’s Bluetooth, but outside of those situations my phone is usually locked.

Sure, it’s annoying to have to constantly scribble my unlock pattern, but the reassurance of a knowing my information is safe and secure is worth it. Find your comfort level by weighing security with convenience to find out if Android’s security update is right for you.

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