License article

Keep tabs on your phone

The risks are increasing but there are precautions you can take, writes Conrad Walters.

Each week, nearly 3200 mobile phones are reported lost or stolen, although it's usually not the phones themselves we mourn so much as the information they hold. This sense of loss is most acute with smartphones, which are constantly lifting their IQ and their importance in our lives.

Mislay a mobile or personal digital assistant in the back seat of a taxi these days and you can forfeit everything from sentimental items such as family photos to identifying information such as email passwords and credit card details.

And the risks will only increase as more people opt for phones with internet access and hefty computing power. Technology research company Gartner estimates Australians will buy 1.4 million smartphones this year and that in just four years smartphones will outnumber their Neanderthal cousins. Little wonder Americans are in the middle of what they're calling the summer of the smartphone.

But a few precautions can alleviate the grief of an absent phone. Every mobile has a unique identifying number and a phone that is lost or stolen can be reported to your mobile carrier and locked out of the phone network (see box).

"People stealing phones in Australia is not going to do them any good because they're blocked and they don't work," says Randal Markey, a spokesman for the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association. Based on the number of requests to block missing phones 166,353 for the year to June 2009 he believes the volume of stolen mobiles is declining, even as the number of handsets in use has increased. (About a quarter of our phones are either found or returned and subsequently unblocked by their owners.)


But what about your data? That irreplaceable video of your son drooling custard on the poodle, the email addresses of everyone at your high school reunion, the list you diligently (but foolishly) compiled of all your passwords?

Depending on your phone, your data could be safe from prying eyes and even recoverable. One of the advantages of a smartphone is its ability to store material online.

Lucinda Barlow, a spokeswoman for Google Australia, recently lost an Android HTC Dream phone. Initially she considered using Google's friend-locating Latitude program, which was installed on her phone, to track the device. Wisely, she thought better of confronting the unknown culprit and simply severed the phone's connection, knowing all her data email, contacts, documents, photos and more was backed up on corporate servers.

"When I get a new phone, it will be as simple as logging in again and everything is there," Barlow says.

She reminds people to protect their phones and, where possible, their SIM cards with passwords and to be diligent about synching their phones with other devices to back up their information.

The regional managing director for computer security company Symantec, Craig Scroggie, points out that some phones allow users to tie a SIM card to a specific mobile, so that even if a thief removes a memory card full of personal information before you can block the handset, your data remains inaccessible if the phone is blocked.

The security response manager for security vendor F-Secure, Chia Wing Fei, warns that a new area of danger for mobile phones is gathering momentum: malware. He says more than 430 viruses have been identified that target mobile phones.

While it may sound like a lot, the number is minuscule compared with the millions of viruses paddling around the internet in search of vulnerable PCs.

"The majority of them are still ... written by hobbyists," he says. "They're doing it for fame, bragging rights and to prove a point that these sorts of things do work."

Scroggie supports this assessment saying: "While we haven't seen a lot of threats to mobile phones to date, they do exist."

He says the volume of malware directed at mobile phones has doubled every six months for the past four or five years. For now, they're often what he calls "pranking for profit".

One example involves a virus that redirects calls via an overseas carrier.

When they do hit, the viruses typically arrive as an SMS alert, a ringtone or email attachment but browsing tainted websites can infect a phone just as it can any other unprotected computer.

Symantec, F-Secure, McAfee and every other serious player in the tech security industry already offer software to defend mobiles against malware. Asked about the uptake of the software, Scroggie says only that it is "relatively early days".

Even with malware at low levels, though, the programs can offer peace of mind through "remote wiping" functions that can erase the data on a handset and memory card even if you no longer control the phone. Scroggie and Chia concede the programs may not gain a big foothold until online banking gains greater attention from consumers ... and thieves.

But they are in no doubt that day will come.

Protect yourself

* Dial *#06# on your mobile to see your handset's unique identifying number and write down your phone's 15-digit ID.

* Create passwords to prevent unwanted access to your phone and memory card.

* Only enable Bluetooth while you exchange data. Otherwise set it to "hidden" or "invisible".

* Consider engraving your name on your mobile to make it less tempting to thieves.

* Consider buying software to protect your data.

Missing in action

* If your phone is lost or stolen, contact your mobile phone carrier and provide the handset's ID number.

* If the phone subsequently turns up, you can have the handset unblocked.

Replacement time

* To check up on a second-hand phone, see and enter the handset's ID to determine if it has been reported missing.