HOWTO: Securing Your Smartphone

Category: Mobile , Security

Your smartphone offers many conveniences, but it carries some risks as well. You may love having access to your email and other apps while you're on the go, but have you ever considered the potential damage that might result if your phone was lost or stolen? Here are some tips on securing your phone, and all the data that it carries...

Smartphone Security - Best Practices

If you carry a smartphone, your contact list, your email, and possibly your online banking information are just a click away. That's fine when the phone is in your hand or your pocket, but what would you do if your phone was left in a taxi, or snatched by a thief?

I recently forgot my phone in a cafe, and didn't realize it until an hour had passed. But because I had prepared in advance, I didn't need to worry about identity theft or exposing my all contacts. I called the cafe, and thankfully the waiter had set the phone aside for me. Even if it had been stolen, I had a plan in place to locate it, and prevent it from being accessed. Here's what I recommend:

Both Android and iPhone devices have a lock screen that allows you to set a pin that must be entered to unlock your phone. You can also configure your phone so that it will automatically lock after a certain number of minutes of inactivity. I strongly recommend that you do this.
Smartphone Security Tips

On the iPhone, you're limited to a four-digit pin, but some Android phones offer other lock screen options. If your phone offers the option to create a password of any length, obviously that can be more secure than a 4-digit pin.

The "pattern lock" option lets you create a passcode by tracing a line between dots on the screen. Patterns are fast and easy to enter, but unless you're VERY careful to keep your screen clean, the unlock pattern you traced may clearly show up when you view the phone from an angle.

Android phones running the Ice Cream Sandwich (or later) software can use a "Face lock" option, which lets you unlock your phone just by looking into the front-facing camera. The obvious danger here is that someone who looks a lot like you (or maybe someone with a photo of your face) could unlock your phone.

I recommend that you use a PIN or password (not pattern or face lock) to secure access to your phone's home screen. This common sense precaution can protect your contacts, emails, and other data in case a phone is lost or stolen.

More Smartphone Security Tips

If you do lose your phone, there are apps you can install to help you locate it, or even wipe any sensitive data before it falls into the wrong hands. You can even scare the pants of the phone thief. That's a topic I've addressed in my article Find a Lost or Stolen Cell Phone.

Keep your smartphone's operating system up to date. Google and Apple issue security and performance updates for Android and iOS, just as Microsoft regularly updates Windows. Make sure your smartphone operating system is up to date to keep it as hack-proof as possible.

Stick to apps you can trust. The app stores managed by Apple and Google are your safest bet, although some malware occasionally slips through their vetting processes. Stick with popular apps that have lots of positive reviews, and you should be safe.

Be as wary of MMS (multimedia text) messages as you are of files attached to emails. Either can contain malware that is activated when you click to view a file. And keep in mind that when you transfer files from your phone's SD memory card to your PC or Mac, you could be spreading an infected file. Anti-virus software on your desktop or laptop will help to catch and quarantine these files.

Security software for smartphones is available from the same trusted vendors who keep millions of PCs safe. For now, there seems to be no need for anti-virus protection on iPhones. But if you have an Android smartphone, I encourage you to read my related article Do You Need Mobile Security Protection?

Finally, if you carry sensitive data on your phone, you should consider encrypting that data. On Android phones, you can encrypt your Google Accounts, application data, downloaded information, contacts, etc. See this page for instructions on how to encrypt your phone.

What are YOU doing to increase mobile phone security? Post your comment or question below...

 
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Most recent comments on "HOWTO: Securing Your Smartphone"

Posted by:

Marty
22 Apr 2013

Useful information, Bob (as always)!

Just wondering if you have any tips for securing a Blackberry.


Posted by:

iOS
22 Apr 2013

Alphanumeric password for iOS devices:

Settings
General
Passcode Lock
Simple Passcode -> Set to "Off"


Posted by:

Isaac
22 Apr 2013

iPhone allows 4 digit passcode to be changed. Settings, General, Passcode Lock. Set simple passcode to off and then proceed to set passcode code as you wish. More digits, alpha-numeric etc. While there set the lock time to a short one. If you leave it behind and it locks within a minute or two it is more secure than a longer set time. Find My iPhone which Apple provides so that a lost iPhone can be located and all data erased. Best advice for banking by smartphone is probably, "Don't do it." Regardless of email service provider, set your account to use SSL for security and encryption both on incoming and outgoing mail.


Posted by:

Garth
22 Apr 2013

You might also look at Blackberry phones rather than just the two that you seem to favor. They all have the capabilities to use a password and have a free program from Blackberry to allow remote wipe and remote GPS (or phone tower) mapping as well as loud ringing if you are not sure where it is. It is called Blackberry Protect.


Posted by:

dwream
22 Apr 2013

Good article! As additional protection, I recommend that iPhone users activate the "Erase Data" feature under Settings, General, Passcode Lock, to "Erase all data on this iPhone after 10 failed passcode attempts".


Posted by:

frank
22 Apr 2013

thanks for the info it was very helpful


Posted by:

The other Al
23 Apr 2013

Interesting - when searching for "pin password android" the first link that came up was one which allowed the user to bypass the PIN. Oops, ....


Posted by:

Jay Bingham
26 Apr 2013

Great information Bob. Since I just switched to an Android phone it was very timely. I had been using a pattern to unlock my phone but have changed to a pin on your suggestion. I was interested in the possibility of encrypting the data on my phone so I followed the link you provided. I was extremely disappointed to learn that the same pin that is used to unlock the phone is used to unlock the encryption. To me this is like having two combination locks with the same combination that must both be opened to gain access to a vault. Especially since the information that they are the same is widely published, any hacker already knows that all they must do is crack one code and they have access to your phone and all the data on it. Sorry, Bob, but I cannot agree with your recommendation to use encryption as an additional security measure since doing so provides scant additional security.


Posted by:

Joe S.
28 Apr 2013

Bob, love your columns and info --- read them regularly, and I just have one comment on this one --- time to also (and I join w/the post about Blackberry) start adding info about Windows Phones. Have a Nokia 920 and love the Windows platform --- time it gets more recognition and support. Thanks,


Posted by:

Brother Tom
03 May 2013

I just saw on the news last night that 1/3 of all robberies involve a phone. What they typically do is just wipe the phone and sell it.


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