Cellphone safety: Protecting privacy, data and kids too

This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News
by Larry Magid

A recent survey by Opinion Matters on behalf of GFI Software found that many people don’t fully understand how to protect their data and privacy in the event their phone is lost or stolen.

The survey of just over a thousand U.S. adults found that 57 percent of respondents were most concerned about “the hassle and cost of having to buy a new phone” but nearly as many (54 percent) were more worried about “losing my contact list.” Just over a third (34 percent) worried about losing memorable or irreplaceable photos, while 29 percent were most concerned about “being vulnerable to identify theft by having my personal information or documents stored on my smartphone compromised.”

Those worried about losing their contacts or other data may be unaware of ways to back up phones via the cloud, and I wonder if those who worry about data getting into the wrong hands know that there are programs that can be used to remotely lock or wipe their phones.

If my phone were stolen, I would certainly fret about the cost of replacing it, but I would have absolutely no concern about losing my contact list or valuable photos because they’re all backed up in the cloud. I use Gmail and let Google (GOOG) store my contact lists and calendar on both my iPhone and my Android phones, and my wife does the same on her Blackberry. If the phone were lost or stolen, the data would still be safe and the contact list and calendar are always in sync, so if I add or change something from my PC or Mac, I can see it on my phone and vice versa. It also means that all my mobile devices are in sync. Apple’s (AAPL) iCloud offers similar backup services.

I would worry a little about my data getting into the wrong hands, but there are Apps for that. Apple’s iOS operating system comes with Find My Phone that allows owners to remotely lock or wipe their phone. It can also be used to locate a missing phone. The “find” feature works by sending a relatively loud tone and displaying a message like “if you find this phone please call me at  408 555-5555 .” You can access Find My Phone from any Web-enabled device or by using the app on other iOS devices.

One of several products that can help find, secure and wipe your phone

There are many similar apps available for Android and Blackberry devices. The study’s sponsor, GFI, just launched GFI VIPRE Mobile Security Premium, which includes these features along with anti-virus protection, online backup and activity monitoring and location tracking of children’s’ phones. The “freemium” app offers free lost device alarm, anti-virus, and contact backup. The full suite of features are available for 99 cents a month or $9.95 a year after a 30-day free trial period.

The only drawback to these apps is that the phone needs to be on and getting a signal for them to work. So, if your phone is lost or stolen, you need to act quickly while it’s still running. Apple’s service has a feature that sends you an email when the phone is found, which means that if someone finds it and turns it on later, you’ll get an email so you know to log on to iCloud right away to wipe the device. If you use GFI VIPRE to wipe a phone that’s not online, the phone will be wiped if and when it connects to the Internet via the cellular nework or Wi-Fi.

Regardless of whether you use any of these location-based products, it’s a good idea to lock (password protect) your phone. In addition to keeping prying eyes away from your data, it also prevents people from using your phone to make expensive international calls or using it to send inappropriate emails or text messages that appear to come from you. It’s is especially important to remind kids that their phones are an extension of them and anyone using their phone can easily impersonate them.

The GFI survey also asked parents whether it’s more important to monitor their kids activity on a PC (laptop or desktop) or on a phone, and 13 percent chose PC while 8 percent chose phone. Most respondents said they didn’t have kids (61 percent) or that their children don’t use PCs or smart phones (9 percent).

It strikes me that if you’re worried about what your kids are doing with technology, you should be more concerned about their cell phone use than what they’re doing on the home PC. I’m not saying that they can’t get in trouble at home, nor am I suggesting that all kids need to be monitored either at home or on mobile devices; as I frequently say at my SafeKids.com and ConnectSafely.org sites — I think that talking with kids is sometimes sufficient or even better. But kids use mobile devices in places where there is no adult supervision and they can do just about anything with a mobile device that they can with a PC plus a lot more — like taking and sending pictures, allowing others to track their location and, of course, talking on the phone.

Smart phones and cars are the most powerful technologies people own. Both expand your mobility and enhance your life but — if not used carefully — they can both get you into trouble.

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