Update 1 (11/06/2020 @ 06:05 PM ET): Google has reached out with more details on the Device Lock Controller app. Click here for more information. The original article, as published earlier today, is preserved below.
Flagship smartphones have gotten substantially more expensive in the last few years, so many OEMs and carriers offer payment programs to give consumers the option of paying a fraction of the price each month over a period of 24 or more months. But what do you do if something unexpected happens and you can’t make a payment for a month or two?
Well, what happens when you default on your device payment plan depends on the company that issued you the loan. Verizon in the U.S., for instance, gives you a chance to set up a payment arrangement before going to collections and shutting off your network access, while Samsung India restricts device functionality based on how long the debt has been outstanding. It seems like Google wants to make it easier for banks or other credit providers to implement the latter method of debt collection.
Earlier today, we spotted an app on the Google Play Store called “Device Lock Controller” (h/t @JasonBayton). Here’s the app’s description on Google Play:
Device Lock Controller enables device management for credit providers. Your provider can remotely restrict access to your device if you don’t make payments. If your device is restricted, basic functionality, such as emergency calling and access to settings, will still be available.
The app makes use of Android’s DeviceAdminService API to remotely control device functionality. This is the same API that enterprises use to control what employees can do with their work phones. Companies that distribute phones to their employees typically preload apps that use this API, so there’s no way to disable them. Presumably, a credit provider, such as a bank or other financial institution, can preload Google’s Device Lock Controller app before loaning a device to their customers, and if that customer is unable to make a payment, they can remotely lock them out of their phone.
The Device Lock Controller app does not appear when you search Google Play or when you look through the Play Store landing page for all apps made by Google. However, the developer of this app is clearly Google, so we reached out to the company for comment but have not heard back prior to the publication of this article.
My feelings on this app are mixed, but mostly negative. I understand that creditors are taking a risk when providing loans, but I think it’s rather counterproductive to disable access to most functionality. A smartphone is the primary computing device for millions of people, especially for those who can’t afford a PC and in-home Internet. Sure, the Device Lock Controller app still lets you place and receive phone calls, but so much business is conducted over the Internet these days that it’s really important to stay connected.
Update 1: Clarity from Google
A spokesperson from Google reached out to clarify some details about the Device Lock Controller app. To start with, Google says they launched this app in collaboration with a Kenyan carrier called Safaricom. In a blog post dated July 28, 2020, and titled “Growing access and inclusion with more affordable smartphones“, Google talked about the launch of Safaricom’s new “Lipa Mdogo Mdogo” (“Pay Bit by Bit”) financing plan that allows Kenyans to purchase a new Android Go Edition smartphone in affordable installments. On Safaricom’s FAQ page about this financing plan, the carrier says that they will “lock the device” following 4 days of nonpayment.
But what about the app’s quiet appearance on the Google Play Store? Apparently, that was just a mistake. Google has confirmed that the Device Lock Controller app should not be listed on the Google Play Store for users in the U.S., and they will work to take down the listing. We have reached out to Google to clarify if the company has plans to partner with more carriers or financial institutions in the future and will update this article if we hear back.