Using Internet-connected devices always comes with worries about information security. And the more we rely on these devices, the more cybersafety experts warn us of threats, and the more we worry. Since we’re not going to put down our devices, we need to break that cycle in hopes of protecting both our data and our sanity.
The biggest concern has centred around sensitive personal information being ‘out there,’ online. We’ve heard about new scamming methods emerging, like criminals finding out the best time to break into your house based on your vacation social media posts. We also hear about suspicious emails from scammers pretending to be PayPal or your tax revenue agency, requesting credit card details. The more a scammer knows about you, the more vulnerable your identity and your property becomes.
Smartphones encourage what’s called cognitive offloading: sensitive information we used to remember and tasks we used to perform in our brains are increasingly the domain of apps. We plug meeting details into our calendars and immediately forget them. We write down passwords to all kinds of private accounts in our Notes app. Some apps, like Evernote, are even pitched as a kind of “digital junk drawer.” Users take photos of everything so they don’t forget important details. But how much trouble would identity thieves have if they had access to your IRL junk drawer?
Consider the gigabytes of sensitive information stored on our smartphones, and then consider the stunningly low number of smartphone users who protect their devices with a personalized PIN.
Cloud technology came along as a proposed solution to the risk of losing private information along with the device. The recurring problem is, it seems that every new method of storing information turns out to be another place where you risk losing data.
But despite all this, the mass shift to mobile continues. With Apple’s latest announcement of the Pay feature, it’s not difficult to imagine a scenario where losing your smartphone would cost you more than just the price of the device.
“Hey Siri, can I use my iWatch to find my wallet which is in my iPhone 6 in the back of a cab?” – me next year #AppleLive
— Andrea Woo (@AndreaWoo) September 9, 2014
It’s no wonder we are so anxious about potentially misplacing our smartphones, and developers are constantly working to address this fear. PINs are replaced by biometric ID readers, and device discovery features are introduced to prevent smartphone theft or loss. But if you’re like me, and feel more comfortable being in control of your own device, here are a few simple steps to ensure your mobile data is protected—since we plan to stay mobile, may as well stay safe.
1. Set a PIN
It’s the easiest step, and yet one ignored by many. Don’t try to be lazy or clever by setting your iPhone passcode to “6969” and your Android pattern to Zorro’s signature. Identity theft is far from funny. A passcode ensures your safety in the worst-case scenario—all latest iPhone generations have an option of erasing all hold data if the passcode was guessed wrong over ten times. If your device reads biometric data, you can choose that option; it removes the burden of remembering your password, or being concerned the combination being seen and copied by others. However, be aware of security concerns that come along with sharing information like your fingerprints, and weigh your options accordingly.
2. Protect your passwords
No matter how many “password talks” we’re given every year, somehow, passwords still remain the weakest link when it comes to online security. When you create a new password for every online account, many of us panic and enter the same password we use for all Internet accounts, or, even worse, pick from the list of the easiest passwords to hack.
In order to avoid these mistakes, you can use a password manager, such as LastPass or 1Password, to generate and remember your passwords for you—which means no more storing passwords on your smartphone. Another alternative to storing password is writing down password reminders instead, as this information won’t reveal anything to anyone but you.
3. Encrypt sensitive information
…or better yet, encrypt all the information you deem valuable. iOS users’ data is automatically encrypted once the phone is locked with a passcode (yet another reason to follow through with #1). Android users have a slightly lengthier process, which sometimes results in slower overall performance—in my opinion, a worthy sacrifice for increased safety. Remember that, for most devices, encryption is irreversible, which means you lose all information with loss of passcode access, if that information is not backed up.
4. Back up your data
Even encryption has its weak spots, however; if there is data made vulnerable by being portable, the best way to prevent its loss is to back it up to a hard drive or cloud storage. iOS users can put extra protection on the automatic backup process that happens whenever your device is connected to a computer by checking off the ‘Encrypt iOS backup” box. If you don’t feel safe storing data using iCloud and Google Cloud servers, there’s a number of online backup services to choose from.
5. Secure your network
A general rule of thumb for mobile network security is to remember that you can control the number of users simultaneously using the network at home, but that’s not the case with public online hubs. Try to avoid e-banking using public WiFi, especially if the network isn’t password-protected. To add an extra layer of security, you can buy your own virtual private network (VPN) to avoid questioning the safety of every WiFi network you join. Be careful with geo-tagging and using apps like Foursquare when you’re on vacation or extended leave, to avoid falling victim to cyber-savvy burglars.