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Android N may usher in a new era of smartphone security

Published Jun 7th, 2016 5:10PM EDT
Android N Device Manager

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Losing a smartphone or having it stolen is one of the worst things that can happen, considering that we use these small devices for many of our daily routines. It’s not just the monetary value of the lost smartphone, but also the personal data it contains, and which might be lost forever. However, iPhone and Android devices have tracking mechanisms in place that can help us retrieve a lost smartphone, or at least find out where it was last seen. And Google is apparently working on an interesting feature that might improve smartphone security in a sense that thieves might have little incentive to steal them.

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According to Android Police, Google is exploring a method to permanently brick lost or stolen devices. That way, the person who either finds a smartphone – or steals it – won’t be able to use it in the future. Furthermore, the victim will rest assured that data on the lost device is deleted.

Current Android security features let you perform remote wipes, and thieves would have a hard time using your device. Though, the smart ones may always find a way around these security protections.

Google’s new feature would not only perform the remote wipe, but it would also brick the phone. That means the device won’t boot later on.

This “Nuclear Brick” feature, which is what Android Police calls it, was just discovered in AOSP, suggesting that Google might deploy it in future Android builds.

Once invoked, the feature would securely wipe the device. That means it will write zeros over your data, but also over everything on your Android partitions. Even the recover, boot, and bootloader would be erased in this procedure. Recovering the device would be nearly impossible, at least unless dedicated JTAG hardware.

Android Police speculates that manufacturers would be able to define which partitions would be included in the brick command and that users would be able to recover the device without any special hardware. The hard part is coming up with the software that would let users seamlessly recover their bricked device upon retrieving it.

It’s not known whether Android N would offer this type of security, or whether Google will simply make it available to users via an Android Device Manager update at some point in the future.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.