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5 Ways to Protect Your Smartphone

Mar 19, 2012 10:32 AM, By Jason Bovberg

Common-sense advice for protecting your smartphone.


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I read on my smartphone this morning that smartphone adoption in the United States just crossed the 50 percent threshold, so chances are, you’ve got one. Perhaps you’re even reading this column on a smartphone. Whether it’s an Apple iPhone, an Android phone, or a Windows Phone, that phone in the palm of your hand is a powerful little machine—and also an increasingly large target for malicious attackers. There’s no getting around the fact that smartphone security should be a major concern in any connected home.

I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling the threat of data loss, whether from threat or carelessness, fairly often. I have a Windows Phone, which is deemed to be one of the more security-conscious choices—illustrated by a recent promotion in which Microsoft offered free Windows Phones to users of Android phones afflicted by malware. The Android Market has been a bit notorious for the number of malicious apps that have infected it. These are legitimate-looking apps loaded with malware that can cause unpredictable activity on your phone, such as rebooting it or sending expensive text messages to all the names in your contacts list. But even on my Windows Phone, I’m seeing plenty of suspicious characters in my Marketplace, and the Apple Store has had its share of security problems.

Even if all those free foreign and adult apps in my Marketplace are innocent, what about staying secure in the event that I misplace my phone? This little device is loaded with account information and passwords and email addresses and personal information about me and everyone I know. If I set the phone down on a restaurant table and accidentally leave it, what’s keeping anyone from having instant access to all of that data? A recent survey said that 20 percent of mobile users have experienced some kind of security threat with their device. That’s enough to get me very focused on the protection of all my smartphone’s data.

“The future of computing is inevitably mobile,” says Dr. Amit Sinha, mobile security expert and CTO of Zscaler. “Hackers are opportunistic and go after systems that offer low security barriers and high potential for reward. An individual's smartphone provides access to email, location, contacts, and often to social networks and financial accounts. Plus it is easy to trick people into downloading ‘free’ apps packaged with malware that hackers can subsequently monetize."

With that in mind, I want to offer some common-sense advice for protecting your smartphone.

1. Lock it

Beyond simply making sure that you don’t misplace the phone, the easiest way to give your data an initial line of defense is to set the phone to lock itself. When you power on that smartphone, it should require a password. In my case, I know I’ll be tapping this password frequently, so I use a fairly simple five-digit number that’s easy to remember and easy to tap in, but that a thief (or simply the curious person who happens to find my lost phone) would be pretty hopeless to get past easily. All smartphones offer locking functionality in their settings, yet almost nobody uses it.

2. Download only trustworthy apps

There’s nothing worse than being the very person who puts your phone most at risk. Sure, one of the great things about smartphones is the plethora of apps that you can download, but if you’re downloading whatever seems interesting, you’re in for trouble. Odds are a malicious app is going to find its way onto your device. By their natures, apps require varying levels of access to the data you store on that phone, so you need to be more careful than you probably are. When you find an interesting app, take a few minutes to research it online before clicking Download. Look for trustworthy user reviews from at least a couple sources.

3. Put a damper on wireless and GPS

When you aren’t using your home Wi-Fi network, consider disabling the antenna in your settings. Not only is Wi-Fi a drain on your battery (as it’s constantly trying to locate wireless networks in your area), but it’s also a route into your system that malicious users can take advantage of. The same goes with Bluetooth. (And, by the way, use your usual caution when using public wireless networks. That goes without saying, right?) And although your location services are handy for all kinds of apps, such as the Check-in functionality of Facebook and foursquare, know that each time you use it, you’re creating a profile of your movements. Way to let unsavory types know exactly when you’re out of the house! So, shut off that GPS when you don’t need it. And devote a little extra research to those apps that require its use.

4. Keep up with updates

Admit it: How often do you see the notification on your phone to update to the latest OS version—and ignore it? It can be a hassle to connect your phone with your computer and download that upgrade, but many of these updates are devoted to finding new ways to protect your information, patch security vulnerabilities, and keep everything up to date. So do it! Every time!

5. If all else fails, do a remote wipe

If you’ve lost your smartphone or it has been stolen, go directly to your computer, access your Remote Wipe settings, and—what’s that you say? You don’t know how Remote Wipe works on your phone? Well, before the worst-case scenario happens, do a little research to find out how to accomplish it, because there are several ways to do it, whether it’s built in to your email account, taken care of at a corporate level at work, or provided via a third-party app. Essentially, remote wipe lets you erase all of your data from the smartphone, obviously keeping it away from the phone’s new “owner.”

Smartphones today are more capable than entire computer systems of years past, yet they come equipped with only basic security measures. We’re really only just learning how to best protect the voluminous personal data they store. For now, you should consider the security of your smartphone to be in your hands. It’s up to you to keep it safe. These measures will help shield you from the majority of today’s threats.



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