Do you know where your smartphone is right now? If you didn't, would you know how to find it, other than ransacking your home or office and trying to backtrack everywhere you'd been recently?
The consequences of a lost smartphone aren't just the high cost of replacing a piece of hardware (particularly when you're still under carrier contract). It can mean the loss of both business and personal data; data that could potentially fall into the hands of…well, just about anyone.
You Lost Your Smartphone. Now What?
First, the vendor-provided location features we describe in this article are obviously intended for individuals who own and manage their own devices. If you're outfitting a small business with smartphones and want an administrator to be able to track the location of all company phones, mobile device management (MDM) products can provide this capability. Read more about MDM here.
A little advance preparation can greatly increase the odds of finding and recovering your smartphone should you lose it; we'll show you what you need to do on an iPhone, Android phone, or Windows Phone. But before we delve into how to set up and use the location feature on these platforms, let's review some basic information and disclaimers that apply to all of them.
Figure1: Turn on Apple's Find My Phone feature from within iCloud settings.
Right off the bat, we need to point out the obvious; location services are an indispensable feature when it comes to finding a lost phone. Thus, if you disable your smartphone's location services owing to privacy concerns, you've also disabled your ability to find your phone. (Just one example of the double-edged sword this technology represents).
Tracking a smartphone's location works best when it has an automatic and persistent connection (e.g. a cellular network link) to the Internet. If your phone goes AWOL in an area with no cellular signal (or only marginal coverage) you may not be able to pinpoint its whereabouts (or you may have difficulty doing so).
This can also have ramifications when you're trying to track down a tablet rather than a phone. Since a tablet typically relies on a Wi-Fi connection for Internet access, finding your missing tablet assumes that 1) it's in the presence of a Wi-Fi network, and 2) it's been previously configured to connect to that network. Remember, most tablets won't automatically join unknown networks—and can't when the networks are password-protected. (Note that if your tablet happens to have 3/4G cellular capability this caveat obviously doesn't apply.)
Ring, Lock, and Wipe
Aside from simply showing your phone's location on a map, each of the smartphone platforms offer a number of proactive steps to take before you head out the door after it:
- Ring: Makes your phone play an audible tone at max volume, and do so regardless of what the phone's volume is set to (or even if it's on mute/vibrate). It can be useful when you've simply misplaced the phone in your home or office, but also in other situations because although location info gives you a street address, it can't tell you whether you left the phone in the second-floor conference room or in the pasta aisle at the supermarket.
- Lock: Secures access to your phone with a password or PIN—even if you haven't previously set up such a code (although these days you should really put a PIN code on your phone the moment you take it out of the box). In addition to locking the phone, you can also display an alternate phone number and/or email address so whoever finds the phone has a way to reach you.
- Wipe (Erase): Performs a remote factory reset on the phone, thus eliminating all of your personal information. This can be a drastic step, but it's a prudent one if you don't think you'll be able to retrieve the phone (if it appears to have been stolen, for example). Besides, if you're regularly backing up your phone to a cloud service or computer, you should lose little if any data by nuking it this way.
NOTE: If you have a Microsoft Exchange-based corporate email account configured on your phone, you have another option. Contact your company's IT administrator because he or she will most likely be able to remotely wipe the phone as well.
In Case of Theft
Speaking of stolen smartphones, it's important to stipulate that these phone location features are intended to help find phones that have been lost by their owners. If you know or suspect your phone's been swiped, don't risk your safety by using phone location information to track down and confront a possibly violent thief. Instead, contact your carrier to report your phone stolen and get in touch with law enforcement.