GCU research to thwart phone thieves

05 November 2014

Dr Mike Just

Dr Mike Just

A team of researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) is creating a global buzz after trialling ‘anti-theft’ smartphones on a test group.

The phones are fitted with an emergency lockdown feature that activates automatically if it falls into the wrong hands or is targeted by hackers. Media coverage has included The New Scientist, Cambodian Times and Big News Network.

Dr Mike Just, a researcher on the project, said: “We completed our three-week trial study at the end of the summer, and our results are now under peer review.

“In this study we looked at the performance of two groups of people when they used our solution: those who currently don't lock their phones, and those that currently do lock their phones with a PIN or pattern.

“In summary, we found that both groups found our solution less annoying, more convenient and similarly secure to other phone-locking techniques. In addition, we used a novel methodology in order to determine that most of our study participants would be willing to adopt our solution for their regular use.”

As technology becomes more advanced, people are using smartphones to store much more sensitive data than ever before, including personal details, bank codes and cash transaction information, as well as photos and video, emails, call logs and internet histories, all of which can be exploited if the phone is breached or stolen.

The team of researchers has been working on an ambitious project to tighten smartphone security with the development of handsets that ‘learn’ the daily routine of their owners. Any unusual activity or change in environment is then picked up and the phone starts to request explicit authentication (eg pin) and starts to restrict access to sensitive data and applications, which may contain payment functions, thereby reducing the phone’s usefulness to thieves.

The smartphone can only be reactivated by the owner, who provides authentication and authorises the change in routine. Initially, this could be done by entering a PIN, though more sophisticated methods of identification which may rely upon inputs from a touch screen, or a built-in camera or microphone, are also being investigated.

According to a 2013 Consumer Reports survey, 64 per cent of people don't currently lock their smartphones, and those who do lock their phones find the process "annoying". The proposed solution aims to improve the current state for both groups of users.

The two-year research project is partly funded by a Marie Curie Fellowship through the European FP7 programme.  The project is led by Dr Gunes Kayacik, Dr Just, Professor Lynne Baillie of GCU, and Dr David Aspinall from the University of Edinburgh. The team is also ably assisted by the research work of PhD student Nicholas Micallef.

For more information regarding the project see: http://www.ittgroup.org