How to keep your smartphone (and its data) secure

These tips and tools can help you keep your smartphone close, and protect your data if it strays.

In our daily activities, our smartphones increasingly store or access sensitive business and personal data -- not just email, but also financial and medical information, company systems, travel itineraries, etc. Many of us also use smartphones to access cloud data repositories like Dropbox, Evernote, Google Docs, Microsoft OneDrive and Apple iCloud.

And then there's the growing use of smartphones in other privacy/control-sensitive aspects of our personal lives -- as home monitors, for example, or as smart keys for doors.

Given the important information and accounts that your smartphone -- and tablet -- can access, it's essential to keep unauthorized users from using it as a gateway to your data. Unfortunately, since your mobile device travels with you almost everywhere, the odds of it being misplaced, lost, hacked or stolen -- and, in turn, putting your data and apps at risk -- are high.

What follows is a look at some products, services and techniques to protect access to the data on your Android, iOS or Windows Phone mobile devices.

(There's more to smartphone protection than just this, of course, including backing up/synching data, using antivirus/malware software and VPNs, protecting the hardware with screen protectors and cases, insuring the device against damage or loss, etc. These issues are outside the scope of this article -- but that doesn't mean you should neglect them.)

Much of the advice here will take only a few minutes to implement, and cost anywhere from nothing to a few bucks. What's important is to take these steps as soon as possible.

Grab-proof your phone

Preventing your smartphone from being stolen beats trying to recover a device after the fact.

The most obvious tactic is to exercise common sense -- such as not leaving your smartphone at a table unwatched. But it's hard to keep an eye on your phone every second. Locking cables might be useful for bicycles, notebooks, displays and other medium-size objects, but they don't make much sense for smartphones -- it would be cumbersome to have to physically lock and unlock your phone every time you wanted to use it, even assuming there was something to lock it to.

mobile tracking
Using paired tags and smartphone apps, such as this one from iFi Systems, can warn you if your mobile device strays.

One of your best "grab-prevention" options is a wireless proximity alarm system. These handy app/device combos let you know when your phone gets more than the pre-set distance limit from the proximity device (which is usually small enough to fit on a key ring).

If you leave your phone in a cab, or somebody picks up the wrong iPhone, there are a number of things these products can do, depending on the specific product: lock the phone screen, trigger an alarm on the phone or locate the phone using GPS. (Some also work in reverse, so you can use your smartphone to find the keys that you dropped behind your desk.)

  • Kensington's Proximo Tag and Fob ($24.99 for the Tag and and $39.99 for the Fob) work with a free app; once you've installed the app, a proximity alarm can let you know if your phone and Tag/Fob get beyond a pre-set distance (you can optionally Remote Lock your phone). You can also use a button on the Fob or Tag to trigger an alarm. Note: Works only with specific Samsung Galaxy and iOS devices.
  • iFi Systems' Smart Tag for iPhone 4S or 5 ($29.95) or Android ($34.95) pairs with an app on your iPhone or Android device, and beeps if one gets too far from the other. You can set safe zones -- inside your home, for instance -- where the alert is disabled. A few minutes after a proximity alert is triggered, the system sends you an email with a Google Map showing the location of your device -- though of course if your phone has disappeared you'll need to use another device to access your email.
  • HipKey Proximity and Movement Alarm ($59.95) alerts you if your iPhone or iPad (loaded with the free app) and the HipKey dongle get too far apart -- you can pick one of three distances -- or is carried outside of a safe zone. There's also a motion detection mode that sounds an alarm if someone moves your belongings.

Foil unauthorized users

One key part of mobile security is preventing unauthorized people from being able to use your smartphone if they get hold of it, whether it's for the minute or two that you've stepped away from the table, or for an hour or more after it's been found or stolen.

The first and easiest solution: Use a screen lock to require authentication.

Authentication and time-lock security features are baked into all current mobile operating systems -- they are typically found in Settings; enabling them doesn't take more than a minute or two.

There are a variety of options, depending on your operating system. My iPhone 4 running iOS 7, for example, only supports a simple four-digit numerical passcode or what it calls a "non-Simple" passcode, which can have more alphanumeric characters -- harder to guess, but also harder to keep re-entering whenever the lock screen appears.

On the other hand, my Nexus 7 tablet running Android 4.2.1 has more screen lock choices: Slide (essentially just sliding your finger to one side, which really isn't a lock; Face Unlock (using facial recognition); Pattern (a drawn pattern between a set of dots); PIN (a four-digit numerical passcode) and Password (which can be longer than four characters and can include letters, numbers and non-alphanumeric characters).

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