Divide By Zero

Rants, Gadgetry & Boring Ole Philosophy

Android Security Apps Review: Lookout, SeekDroid, Cerberus, Prey & Theft Aware

Written By: Tyler Style - Jun• 19•11

Today’s free app from Amazon.com’s AppStore is SeekDroid, so I though I’d give it a try.  I’m a big fan of security apps given how incredibly integral smartphones are becoming in our lives.  Losing your smartphone these days can be absolutely crippling for those of us who enjoy a high tech information rich lifestyle!  So far I’ve tried out Lookout and Cerberus as well as SeekDroid, and I’m going to go over how well each app does in offering minimum necessary security features and overall value.

Security apps should offer these features at a minimum:

  • control the phone via the web,
  • control the phone via text message (in case the website for the app is down or you don’t have web access),
  • continue to work even with a new SIM card,
  • remotely enable GPS,
  • locate your phone’s location on a map,
  • track your phone’s location as it moves around in real time on a map,
  • lock your phone to prevent it from being used without a code,
  • wipe your personal data from the phone,
  • wipe your personal data from the SD card,
  • hide the app from appearing in the app drawer, and
  • prevent the app from being uninstalled without a code.

Other nice features are:

  • able to send alert messages to display on the phone to anyone who finds/steals it
  • set off an audio alarm (useful for finding a misplaced phone),
  • record audio from the microphone,
  • snap pictures from the camera,
  • get a list of the last calls made & received, and
  • get a list of the last text messages sent & received.

I consider being able to control the phone remotely via text messaging to be a vital feature.  You can always borrow a friend’s cell phone to send texts but may not be able to access the web from where ever you’re at when you lose your phone, and time is of the essence if your phone’s been stolen!

Lookout Mobile Security

First up is the free version of Lookout Mobile Security app, which was the first one I tried based on a “top 10 Android apps” list I found last year.  It’s more of an all-in-one security suite like Norton, offering anti-spyware, malware and unsafe site web browsing alerts in addition to the more usual security features.  However, given the high security of the Android platform in general, I find this to be overkill.  Worse, the app slows down the phone way too much, just like Norton tends to enormously slow down a computer.  And you have to pay for these nearly worthless security options!  It also offers basic phone data backup, but that’s a feature you can get with any other number of good free apps as well.

Finally and crucially, the ability to remotely lock your device so no one else can use it and to remotely wipe your private data is only available in the paid version.  Since these are pretty vital features in any phone security app, the free version is pretty much useless except for using their web interface to locate the phone on Google Maps.  It’s also missing a lot of the other vital features, such as text messaging control and hiding from the app drawer and locking down app removal.  And for what you get, the price is outrageous – it’s a subscription service for $2.99/month or $29.99/year!  Based on the lack of necessary features, the uselessness of the paid features and the high price, I wouldn’t recommend Lookout to anyone.

SeekDroid

SeekDroid definitely fares better in covering the basic mandatory features, and it’s regularly only $0.99.  I’m a little put off by grammar mistakes and the like on the website, however too dense to appreciate the clever Orwellian joke on the home page:
SeekDroid Website Grammar Mistake Example
On the other hand, the web interface is quite visually appealing, and the little secret agent Droid is most cute!

SeekDroid Web Interface

However, it doesn’t offer real time tracking – just the current location when you request it via the web interface “Locate” button.  Also, despite GPS being enabled on my phone it wasn’t able to resolve my location down to less than a kilometer radius.  However, the final nail in the coffin is that it only offers the web interface – you can’t text the app to control it.  So if you don’t have web access, you’re out of luck …and as I mentioned earlier when your phone has just been stolen or lost, fast response time is critical!

Cerberus

Cerberus, on the other hand, offers every critical feature I’ve listed and more besides.  It’s definitely the most complete and feature rich security and remote management app I’ve found.  It’s a little more pricey than your average Android app at 2.99€, but it’s money very well spent in my opinion.  Text message control, real time tracking, remote audio and visual recording, complete lockdown, audio and message box alerts, remote SD card and phone memory wiping – it’s got it all! You just can’t get a better security app than this app.

Cerberus Web Interface

Final Thoughts

In summary: SeekDroid is a decent security app but doesn’t quite offer enough of the most important features, and Lookout is overpriced, missing key features and slows your phone down with nearly useless “security” features.  Cerberus stands out head and shoulders above the others in terms of value, offering all the features you need for a very high level of security and more.

In closing, I really can’t emphasize how important it is to get a good security app.  As my friend Sandy unfortunately learned last week, a late model smartphone is a big fat target for theft.  Unfortunately for her, she had an iPhone and hadn’t yet installed an security apps on her just one week old purchase.  And since Apple has such a limited app infrastructure, you can’t install apps remotely so she was out of luck trying to do so after the theft.  Security apps for mobile computing devices is extremely important given how easy they are to steal or be lost – it should be one of the first things you install. Fortunately for Android users, Google has a much more flexible and open app infrastructure for Android and you can install one after the fact so long as the phone is on the network and still using your account.  If you’re going to protect your investment in your smart phone – both financial and in terms of lifestyle – spending a little on an excellent app like Cerberus is the best investment you can make in keeping your phone safe and secure.

Update: Prey

Some redditors asked about Prey as a phone security app.  I just tried it out, and it’s missing most features I would consider important.  The most vital was that while you can trigger it via a text message, I didn’t see any way to trigger a “report” from the website.  In fact, you have to subscribe to the Pro version at US$5.oo/month in order to be able to request the geolocation whenever you want it as opposed to whenever the Prey app runs at some unspecified interval, which pretty much kills the utility of the app as an anti-theft utility.

The only features I could find were obtaining the current location (but no real time tracking, and it doesn’t specify whether it gets the info from GPS or by cell tower triangulation so it may not resolve very far), getting phone network info, triggering an audio alarm, triggering a message box alert, and locking the phone.  While it’s great that it’s open source and that it supports so many mobile computing platforms and so might be good for protecting laptops or tablets, I wouldn’t recommend it as a phone anti-theft device.

Update: Theft Aware

A commenter asked my thoughts on Theft Aware.  I took a look, and it’s a pretty complete app in terms of the features I consider important.

The authors are German, and definitely not proficient at English.  The website is hard to navigate, and it was difficult to compare the features especially as the Symbian and Android features were intermixed.  I eventually had to downloaded the user guide [PDF] to make sense of it.  The user guide is much better written and organized than the information available on the website.

Theft Aware’s root and debug mode lockout is definitely a neat feature, as is being able to back up the app settings so that even a factory reset won’t delete them. Those features make it a more complete solution security-wise than Cerberus.

However, Theft Aware is lacking a couple of key features: no web based control and as a consequence, no real time tracking. Theft Aware can only be controlled via SMS, so if you don’t have a friend’s phone handy to text with you are out of luck. Since speed is key when your phone’s gone and not having to constantly manually update location is a huge advantage when tracking a thief that’s on the move , I still recommend Cerberus.

Update 2011-07-19: Non-stock OS

I’ve heard from another user that the power consumption of Cerberus is pretty heavy on their handset, but they were using Cyanogen Mod as opposed to the stock OS.  When using a custom OS on your phone, your mileage is likely to vary.  It might also have been a result of his having a different handset from mine (an HTC Desire HD).  For the record my phone is an original Droid running the stock OS (although rooted), and my power usage is tiny.

Note: if you’re in Canada or some other country and you try to download it using the Android Amazon AppStore app, it will tell you that it’s not available in your location.  Fortunately, I know a little hack to get around this limitation!