Phones

How to Protect Your Smartphone's Valuable Data

So you just lost your smartphone. It isn't the end of the world, but it sure feels like it.

In addition to the specter of shelling out another couple hundred dollars to replace the hardware, you're facing the loss of all your contacts, your schedule, your to-do lists, your passwords (if you really weren't careful and stored them on the phone), and, oh yeah, the dicey photos you took at the bar last Friday.

All of that is gone, at least for the moment, but if your Apple iPhone, Google Android phone, RIM BlackBerry, or any other smartphone falls into the wrong hands, that vast archive of your personal information won't just be forgotten--it could be cashed in.

The loss of a smartphone wouldn't be so bad if it ended with merely a bit of embarrassment. Since many people now use smartphones for online banking, travel reservations, and storing sensitive business documents, however, a great deal of very private data ends up on the device.

Much of this data is safe behind password-protected applications, but a large portion of it dangles out in the open in e-mail messages, text documents, images, and other files.

What are smartphone users doing to protect the precious data in their pricey handsets?

Apparently not much, according to some industry experts. And that's surprising, given the number of apps and phone features available for safeguarding data. According to McAfee, best known for its antivirus products for personal computers, you're 15 times more likely to lose your cell phone than your laptop computer.

As Good as Cash

Another danger to consider: A lost smartphone may soon be the high-tech equivalent of a lost wallet.

New wireless-transaction services will soon allow a smartphone to replace cash or a credit card at a store's point of purchase. Firethorn, which makes many of the mobile-banking applications that major banks offer, is putting the final touches on SWAGG, an application that will make it possible to purchase, give, and spend gift cards, as well as to manage store-loyalty programs, from a single point. Retailer American Apparel has announced that it will support the SWAGG system for purchases from its stores.

Though the convenience of cell-phone-enabled purchases may be attractive, the danger of losing a cash-enabled phone to a thief is obvious.

Lost or Stolen?

Phones are often lost by accident, but waves of cell phone thefts are nothing new in major cities. For example, passengers of Boston's subway system recently benefited when the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) Orange Line was fully wired for T-Mobile and AT&T cell phone service. The other side of the coin, however, has been a rise in cell phone thefts, up 70 percent in the first quarter of 2010 in Boston. According to the same report, 80 percent of the thefts in Philadelphia's subway system are of cell phones.

Though crime stats in New York have declined in recent years, cell phones and iPods lead the way among the types of items stolen. Transit authorities now make regular announcements--in addition to posting signs on platforms and in trains--warning riders not to flash electronic gadgets unnecessarily.

Even people standing still on city sidewalks aren't safe from cell phone thieves.

A San Francisco thief steals an iPhone while a demo using tracking software is in progress. The software shows his location, and he is arrested 10 minutes later.
In July, Covia Labs, a software company based in Mountain View, California, was in San Francisco demonstrating its Alert & Respond personnel-tracking application when CEO David Kahn sent an intern into the street with an iPhone as a test. No sooner did the intern hit the sidewalk than a thief on a bicycle rode up, snatched the iPhone, and sped off.

What the thief didn't know, however, was that the demonstration was already under way, and that he was being tracked on a computer screen by Kahn and others.

Everyone viewing the tracking was initially perplexed as to why the intern seemed to be moving so fast across the city. However, in less than 10 minutes, the thief had been pinpointed via Covia's software and arrested; the iPhone was recovered, according to MercuryNews.com.

Next: Smartphone Data Protection

Smartphone Data Protection

Whether you leave your phone in a taxi or a thief on a bicycle swipes it right out of your hand, what can you do to protect yourself before either (or worse) happens?

Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for The NPD Group, says locking a smartphone's screen with a password offers a good first layer of protection--a simple process that, unfortunately, phone owners often fail to undergo.

If your phone is stolen and its SIM card is changed, Theft Aware software will send a notification to two numbers you submit to it. The app will also show you the phone's location on Google Maps, among other features.
The next layer, he says, could come in the form of an add-on phone-tracking application such as Microsoft's free My Phone for Windows Mobile or Apple's Find My iPhone app, which works on iPhones and iPads but requires a $99 annual subscription to Apple's MobileMe data-syncing and backup service. The $15 Theft Aware for Android is one of several apps that can help you locate your missing Droid.

During an August 5 press event in New York to launch new versions of Kaspersky Labs' Internet security software, Peter Beardmore, director of product marketing, noted that getting cell phone users to install protective software on their handsets is a hard sell. A better business model might be if phone-protection software and services were bundled with handsets and sold as inexpensive add-ons to a customer's monthly phone service plan, he says.

Kaspersky Mobile Security ($30), currently available only for Windows Mobile and Symbian phones, can lock down a stolen phone, preventing the finder from making calls or accessing data; it can also help you track the handset on a map on another device, remotely wipe all of the phone's data, and notify you if someone changes the phone's SIM card. A BlackBerry version of the software should be ready by the end of the year, while an Android version may be available in 2011, Beardmore says.

Protect Your Smartphone as You Would Yourself

McAfee has also seen the cell phone light, so to speak, and recently acquired TenCube, the Singapore-based publisher of WaveSecure smartphone-protection software. Like the Kaspersky application, WaveSecure can track, lock, and data-wipe a stolen smartphone and detect SIM card changes. Once the phone has been locked down, a permanent message informing the finder of the owner and how to return the handset remains on the screen.

"Mobile devices have become an extension of our lives," says TenCube CEO Darius Cheung in a recent press release. WaveSecure is available for Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, Symbian and Android smartphones. A free beta version of WaveSecure Backup, a data-backup-and-restore product without the tracking, data-wiping and data-locking capabilities of WaveSecure, is available for non-smartphones that support Java.

Retrieving a lost or stolen cell phone doesn't always require sophisticated software--just a little detective work.

For example, when I left my cell phone on a Milwaukee bus in 2002, I quickly reported the loss to T-Mobile. The representative noticed that a call had been made since the time the phone vanished, and gave me the number. I called it, and the father of the teenager who found the handset answered; after some grumbling, he gave me his address.

An hour later I was met at the door by the teenager, who sheepishly gave the phone back. It wasn't until I walked away that I noticed that the boy--who obviously thought his find was a keeper--had already erased all of my contacts.

Teens love cell phones, and the desire for better ones sometimes adds up to juvenile crime, a trend that many police departments seem to have noticed. According to the New York Times, when school is in session, the Philadelphia police department doubles the number of officers in the subway system at 3:15 p.m., when classes let out.

In Washington, D.C., many cell phones are lost in the backseats of taxicabs as riders scuttle out of vehicles, but very few of them turn up at the District of Columbia Taxi Commission's lost and found, says Dena Reed, the commission's general counsel.

She says that while many interesting things are left behind in cabs daily (including three baby strollers one recent day), most lost cell phones are quickly returned to customers by the cab drivers themselves (if you are lucky) and thus never make it to the commission's office.

In New York, more than 20,000 items lost annually by commuters on the Metro North rail line end up in the fabled lost-and-found office at Grand Central Station. To handle the steady stream of high-tech gadgets and other items ranging from false teeth to false limbs, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has designed an online claim system.

Riders can use a special Web form to enter a description of the missing item and where it was lost. Once a found item is matched with its owner, the person can pick it up or have it shipped via Federal Express.

Other Protection Tips

What else can you do to protect your cell phone's data?

  • Don't store sensitive information in an easily readable form.
  • If you use a password to encrypt or lock down your phone data, don't forget the password. Data-protection programs have no "back doors," and the only recourse you'll have is to reset your phone--which erases all the data.
  • Back up your phone data using your carrier's Web service or an app that lets you back up to a computer. This step will allow you to get up to speed with your replacement handset quickly.
  • To prevent thefts, be aware of your surroundings. Don't put your phone down and walk away even a short distance, such as from your table at a coffee shop to the counter where the napkins are.
  • Cell phone insurance is a good thing, but it replaces only the hardware, not your data.

In summary, treat your cell phone as a trusted friend--keep it close at hand, since so much of your life is in it.

You May Also Enjoy:

Stupid Mobile Tricks: 7 Stories of Smartphone Horror

Could the Droid X Replace Your Laptop?

iPhone vs. Everybody: Battle of the Smartphone Death Grips

(Story updated 8/11/10 to reflect clarification on what WaveSecure software is able to do.)

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

Subscribe to the Best of PCWorld Newsletter

Comments