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How to keep your smartphone (and its data) secure

Daniel P. Dern | April 23, 2014
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.

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).

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.

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.


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