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.

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In addition, a growing number of smartphones, like the iPhone 5S, HTC One Max and Samsung Galaxy S5, include fingerprint scanners. And there are other biometric IDs besides fingerprint scanners, such as iris scanners, voice recognition, even ear shape (using Descartes Biometrics' Ergo Android app. You can also use an external identification token such as the Motorola Skip.

mobile tracking
Android-based phones have a range of screen lock choices.

We may even someday have external identification options like temporary tattoos or Fantastic Voyage-type pills containing authentication microcircuits.

Remember, though, that screen locks only work if you use them, so be sure to enable the time-out option -- that way, your smartphone defaults back to the lock screen if too much time has passed since you last did any input. You can manually set how long the device will wait before the screen lock goes on -- it's typically anywhere from one to 30 minutes.

Sometimes, you can even set your smartphone to lock away and even to wipe your data after too many failed authorization attempts. In iOS 7, for example, Settings > General > Passcode lock > Erase data lets you set your device to "Erase all data on this iPhone after 10 failed passcode attempts." Some manufacturers have added this feature to their Android smartphones as well.

However, think carefully before you enable this: If somebody else makes too many failed attempts to use your phone, causing it to erase, you won't be able to remotely find or lock your device.

When your phone goes astray

So you've just gotten home from a long dinner with friends, and your smartphone is nowhere to be found. Did you leave it at the office? In the restaurant? In the cab? Or did somebody palm it while you weren't looking?

If your smartphone slips out of reach, you want to be able to do some remote control to either secure your data, try to get the phone returned, or both.

Android, iOS and Windows Phone now all include all remote find/lock/wipe features built-in for free:

  • iOS: iPhone and iPad owners can use Apple's iCloud-based Find My iPhone app from another iOS device or via any Web browser. The app tracks where your device is (and where it's been); you can also put it in Lost Mode (which locks the screen) and do a remote data erase.
  • Android: Google's Android Device Manager website lets users find the device, ring it (the device emits a loud noise so you can find it), remotely lock the device or erase the data.
  • Windows Phone: Microsoft's Find My Phone features can help users map the phone's location; there are separate instructions for Windows Phone 7 and Windows Phone 8. You can make the phone ring, lock the phone and show a message (with an email address or another way for a finder to contact you), or erase the data.

Most major security software packages offer mobile apps that will help users track and/or wipe their missing devices as well.

mobile tracking
Tracking apps such as Cerberus help you find a missing device, lock it down, wipe it, or employ a number of other security strategies.

There are also a number of third-party apps that offer additional find/protect/recover features like remotely taking pictures (which may, with luck, let you see who is using the device or where it is) or locating it another way.

  • Prey Project can, when you trigger it via the Web dashboard, track your device (based on GPS/Wi-Fi geolocation), display a message on the screen, push an alert sound or take front/back photos with the device's cameras. The basic version is free; Pro versions start at $5/month and handle multiple devices, more reports and other advanced features. It is available for Windows, OS X, Linux, Android and iOS.
  • FinderCodes Electronics - Lost and Found Kit ($24.99) comes with seven tags that each have a QR code and printed code number (there's also an iOS app that lets you set the QR code as your lock screen wallpaper image). When someone finds your device and scans the tag (or hand-enters the code) with their smartphone, FinderCode lets you and that someone email/text anonymously to arrange a return. (You also see the GPS location of their phone, if they haven't disabled it.)
  • Cerberus Anti Theft (2.99 Euros) is an Android app that, through its website, lets you locate and track your device, receive alerts if somebody uses it with an unauthorized SIM card, wipe the phone, or record any audio coming from the microphone, among other features.
  • AndroidLost is a free app that also offers a long list of features, including recording sound from your Android device's microphone and making the phone speak to whomever is using it with text-to-speech.

Final thoughts

Like most security scenarios, protecting your smartphone is best done by taking basic precautions before something bad happens. You can do a fair amount in just a few minutes and without spending any money.

And it's worth doing. If your phone is lost or stolen, knowing your data is protected will make you glad you took those precautions. And if you think your smartphone has simply burrowed under a cushion, there's nothing quite like the satisfaction that comes with being able to have it make a loud sound on command -- even if you've muted your ringer.

This article, How to keep your smartphone (and its data) secure , was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Daniel P. Dern is a freelance technology writer based in Newton Center, MA. His website is www.dern.com and his technology blog is TryingTechnology.com.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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