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Is your cell phone safe?
Matthew Schneeberger
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May 21, 2007

In the age of razor-thin cell phones with Bluetooth and Microsoft Word compatibility, it's become easier than ever to carry a database of information in your pocket. While it's convenient and stylish to have all this at your disposal, what happens if your phone goes missing?

Cell phone hacks and stolen phones are becoming a serious problem for users world-wide. Private information in the wrong hands can endanger not only your reputation, but also your safety, career, finances and loved ones. Indeed, it could happen to you. Or your phone.

Let's review recent changes in the cell phone industry and how they've made it easier for thieves to use your information against you.

In the early days of cell phones, it was hard to imagine how they could serve a criminal. Given their clunky size and limited capacity for data storage, not only was it difficult to lose a phone, it wouldn't harm you even if you did. 

Back then, cell phones contained a small menu for saving numbers, and that was it. Now, however, phones have incorporated full-fledged directories, allowing you to build a database of contacts. Not only can you assign a full name and an accompanying photo to each number, you can also provide sundry details such as address, work phone, home phone and mobile phone. Your cell phone can hold records of your conversations and SMS details with each number in your directory.

Imagine, your new Samsung, smaller than a deck of cards, slides from your pocket and onto the bus-seat when you get up to exit. If you've given extensive details about one of your friends, the finder might have a picture, an address and three numbers. Furthermore, using details from your correspondence, they'll be able to learn your most private information. Now, imagine someone reading all those notes to your boyfriend/ girlfriend -- yikes!

The latest addition to phones is the ability to run programmes such as Microsoft Word and Microsoft PowerPoint. Many individuals use these options to categorise expenditures and to save important personal and professional documents. Also, USB capabilities allow users to use their phones as instant flash drives, carrying around vital documents.

Again, think of an unknown person holding your bank account/ credit card information in their hands, just because you recorded the account/ card number and password on the phone. Do you really want someone to know how much money you spent at the mall last Saturday? Even worse, do you want someone to have a copy of the love letter you're crafting or the top-secret report you're writing for office?

Likewise, phones have become hand-held organisers, with alarms and monthly calendars. You have the option of categorising each day down to the minute, complete with location and who will be present.
If you utilise this organiser function, any one with your phone will know not only where you've been, they'll know where you're going. This unknown person has a digital blueprint for stalking you, all without ever seeing or speaking to you.

The latest cause for alarm is the rise of cell phone hacks. With wireless technology improving, programmes such as Bluetooth have been implemented in cell phones. Bluetooth is used to connect wireless devices, such as your cell phone to a friend's laptop.

Unfortunately, hackers are learning how to use Bluetooth to illicitly access information. Hackers bring a laptop to a location known to have a high density of cell phones, say a restaurant, and attempt to steal information from the surrounding patrons.

These hackers are often able to access and download phone directories, address books, calendars and photographs from numerous people in less than thirty minutes, depending on how many phones are present and how many users have security features installed.

The worst part? Those who have been hacked won't know until their phone bill shoots through the roof, if they ever find out at all.

So, now after inciting panic and alarm, let's examine the ways in which you can protect yourself.

For starters, always use the security options that come with your phone. At all times, make sure to lock your phone with a password and to encrypt all sensitive data.

If your phone lacks these functions, find one with convenient and reliable security options. It shouldn't be a convoluted process to unlock your phone and decrypt your data. If it's difficult to operate your security features, chances are that you'll simply leave it unlocked -- a big mistake.

Second, do not leave your phone loose in your pants pocket or hanging precariously from your purse. You'll most likely access your pants pocket frequently for change, keys, etc. Don't put your phone here, as it may fall out as a result of your hand plunging in and out all day. It may be a pain to access it from inside a bag or purse, or to unlock it from your belt, but it makes sense!

Furthermore, keep personal information and contact details to an absolute minimum in your directory. Do not put accompanying photos for each number and do not put an individual's full name and address with a number. If you can't do without having three numbers for each person in your life, buy an address book and keep it safely.

Likewise, clear your call records and SMS archive every week or two and make sure to transfer any sensitive information to a laptop or personal computer. This includes incriminating photos of you and your friends! (Just ask Paris Hilton, whose BlackBerry was hacked; it led to embarrassing photos surfacing on the Internet)

Regarding hacks, most people erroneously believe a simple Bluetooth password protects them from undesired intrusion; they leave Bluetooth running at all times. Bluetooth's security, however, leaves much to be desired. Only turn Bluetooth on when you are about to exchange data with a trusted acquaintance -- and switch it off immediately afterward, naturally -- and not when going out for a drink after office.

If you're a travelling businessman, make sure you encrypt documents containing financial records. You will be held responsible if your company's information falls into the wrong hands, whether you were in collusion or not. Never keep personal finances, passwords or other highly sensitive information on your phone.

Finally, use common sense. If information is superfluous and unneeded, spare it. There is no reason that your phone should serve as a digital dossier of your life.

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