Technology Untangled: Apps for safe travels and finding lost phones

December 17, 2014

technology-bourToday we will look at two smartphone applications that could be helpful to you this holiday season.

The first is a navigator app called Waze. Before discovering it, I was simply using the included Google navigation app that came with my phone. It is adequate for typical routing directions and includes color-coded traffic overlays to advise you of slowdowns. But Waze offers much more because of its social interactivity features. You can get the best route every day with real-time help from other Waze drivers. Their descriptive tag line is, “Waze. Outsmarting traffic, together.”

Icons pop up on your phone’s map showing all the other Waze drivers who are on the road with you. They automatically provide traffic flow and speed data to this interactive travel map. In addition, they can input info about police sightings, cars on the side of the road and other traffic hazards. As a Waze user, you are encouraged to contribute reports on road conditions as you are traveling. During Thanksgiving travels, I was impressed with the accuracy of the reports on disabled cars and police locations. During a recent ice storm, Waze advised me to take the next freeway exit due to extremely bad conditions ahead. That saved me a lot of grief.

The second app, Lookout, is a free app I installed to my smartphone a while back but never investigated thoroughly. I knew it was regularly performing tasks in the background to enhance security, but I never really gave it a second thought ... that is until I lost my phone.

By far the most useful feature of Lookout is the phone locator. If you ever do drop your phone or leave it behind somewhere, as can happen during the hectic holidays, this feature can be a lifesaver.

To locate my phone, I logged on to the Lookout website and clicked Find My Device. In order for this to work, the phone of course needs to be on and have a data connection by either cell tower or Wi-Fi. It took only a few seconds for a map to appear with a pinpoint and an address. It was in my own home. To find out where, I invoked the “Scream” feature, which signals the phone to sound off loudly. I found it under the seat of my car. An easy find, and what a relief! The hardest part was remembering the log-on password.

But what if you seriously do lose your phone? The address-mapping feature works very well in those cases, too. You can view the map online, but you also get an email with the location details (including precise latitude and longitude) that you can print out and take with you on your search. Once you arrive at the mapped location, you will, hopefully, see your phone. If not, simply ask it to scream. The location is narrowed to within a few feet when triangulated by GPS. As a test, I put my phone out in my mailbox at home. The map actually pinpointed the location within 5 feet. The tracking is not quite as precise if the phone is located using cell towers or Wi-Fi. In my tests, Wi-Fi alone narrowed the location down to my street address while cell towers alone only narrowed things down to my neighborhood.

Now what if you lose your phone overnight and the battery goes dead? Lookout has thought of that, too, with a feature called Signal Flare. When your phone’s battery drops to 15 percent power, the app automatically sends out a “last known location” message for you to retrieve whenever you log on to track down your phone.

Aside from the hassle of losing your phone, the larger concern may be the security of the data within it. Lookout offers a premium service at $29.99 a year to address this. If your phone is stolen and tampered with, you can set up features that will alert you. You can even have the phone take a picture of the thief who is tampering with your phone and have it emailed to you. Either before or after a theft alert, you have the ability to either remotely or automatically lock down the phone, or if necessary wipe all data from it.

Additionally, Lookout routinely performs a backup of your contact list. Premium service adds backup of your call log as well as your photos. Even though I have not been paying for it, I was surprised to discover that Lookout has retained the call log from the thousands of calls I have made since I first installed the app.

Lookout also monitors and stops mobile attacks before they do harm. It scans for viruses and malware during app downloads as well as during file downloads. Other features include a safe browsing alert that warns about suspicious websites. Like many of us, I find that I am using my phone for a greater portion of my Web browsing all the time. This increases the need for a safe browsing feature like this.

So keep safe in your travels this holiday season with Waze, and keep your phone safe and secure with Lookout.•


Stephen Bour (bourtech@iquest.net) is an engineer and legal technology consultant in Indianapolis. His company, the Alliance for Litigation Support Inc., includes Bour Technical Services and Alliance Court Reporting. Areas of service include legal videography, tape analysis, document scanning to CD and courtroom presentation support. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author.


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