21st Century life seems to revolve around the smartphone and the data they contain is precious to us. Not only data with emotional value, like our photos, but also data that could be worth some serious cash to others. For example, your phone may contain passwords to services like your bank, or social networks where personal data could be harvested and sold, should it fall into the wrong hands.
So much of our online identity is vital to the smooth running of our lives, many of the headlines that the media pump out can be pretty scary.
“How a 7-year-old girl hacked a public Wi-Fi network in 10 minutes” (Source)
“New Android Malware Strikes At Millions Of Smartphones” (Source)
“Apple devices vulnerable to attack via bogus charger” (Source)
They make it sound so easy, don’t they? It makes you think twice about taking your phone out of the house! But, with a few minor precautions, you can minimise the risk to your smartphone, and therefore you, falling victim to those headlines.
Use a VPN on Public Networks
When you’re out and about, the data connection your phone uses provided by your mobile network is pretty secure. But that’s not necessarily the case when you connect to a WIFI network, for example that available for free in a cafe. Then, like at home, all the devices connected to that network are potentially visible to each other. Someone who knows what they’re doing may not only be able to find your device on the network, but intercept and read its communications, all without you noticing.
TunnelBear is a well known and trusted VPN provider. You can install their app for free they will encrypt up to 500mb of data communication at no cost per month. If you need more, you can tweet your support for them and they’ll bump that limit up to 1GB. That should be plenty for most of us, but if you need to go further, you can pay for more.
The app is simple to use. On launch, it will find your location on the planet and show it on a map. At the bottom of the picture, you can choose where you want your bear (IE your phone’s connection) to pop back up on the internet. For example, you can be sitting in a cafe in England and tunnel through the internet to pop up in the USA! For the purposes of security on public networks however, I suggest you choose your actual location. Flick the switch to connect and the bear will tunnel down and then pop back out! Once he’s out, your connection is secured and you can close the app and surf away.
AVG Anti-Virus - Check Your Apps Are Friendly
A VPN like TunnelBear can ensure the connection between your smartphone and the services you’re connecting it to is secured, but it cannot protect you from the actions of that service. Even if you connect to the official app store for your device, for example Google Play on Android, it’s perfectly possible to download an app that has malicious intentions.
The most well known recent example is Durak. This card game app based on the classic ‘Patience’ was downloaded somewhere between 5 and 10 million times before someone noticed that it was behaving strangely and sending user’s data where it shouldn’t.
AVG is a well known anti-virus firm and their free mobile app will scan each app you download (and periodically your whole device) and then alert you if any known nasties are found.
Whilst the app is free and includes the basic protection I believe every android phone should have, there are also some interesting paid features, such as the camera trap and the device lock, which give you more powers should the phone ever be physically stolen.
Phone Security Settings
You don’t actually need an app at all to begin to secure your device. The security settings on the phone itself can go a long way to protecting your private data.
For example, set a lock on your phone so it has to be unlocked each time. The iPhone allows you to set up a four digit pin. Android phones offer more options, like swiping and facial recognition, but the most secure is actually that boring old pin number.
Should your phone go missing, the lock will give your data some protection, if it’s really gone for good, you might want to wipe it just so the thief who stole it can’t harm you further.
‘Find My iPhone’ is the best option on Apple and ‘Android Device Manager’ on the web allows you to log in with your registered Google account have the same remote controls. For example, if you’re lucky and the phone wasn’t stolen, but instead slipped down the back of the sofa, hitting the ‘Ring’ button will have the phone announce itself. Failing that, you can hit the ‘Lock’ button, or wipe it entirely.
The map obviously allows you to track the phone’s location, but do be careful with the choices you make here. If the phone really is stolen, report it to the Police.
SpyD - Block Malicious Phone Chargers
I didn't know phone chargers could even be considered a threat until the inventors of SpyD (currently campaigning over at IndieGoGo) contacted me. Basically, our phone’s charge sockets could also double as the wired data connection, so it’s perfectly possible to load up a battery-charger with some malicious software that simply copies itself over to the phone when it’s connected.
Because very few of us are prepared to pay the £25 that so called ‘official’ chargers are sold for, instead preferring to head over to auction sites to pick them up for under £5, I can see that there is potentially some risk here.
The SpyD invention sits between the charger and your phone. It’ll let the charge through, but it cuts off the connectors used for data. If you’re a travelling type who needs to use public charging points, or regularly need to borrow others chargers, then maybe think about lending them your support and getting one.
Basic Precautions Then Relax
Newspaper headlines can get a bit hysterical over this sort of thing, which has more to do with getting your attention than the content of the article. But there are real risks online that can cause you harm through your favourite gadget.
That doesn’t mean you should fear downloading apps or hopping onto a free WIFI hotspot. Just take these few simple precautions and 21st century digital living should continue to stay a fun experience.
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