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Finders peekers: what happens when you lose your phone

Be careful not to lose your mobile phone. Chances are you won’t get it back. A new study out by IT security firm, Symantec, seems to confirm the worst in people.

The study, by the makers of Norton Anti-Virus Software, found that while you only have a 50/50 chance of getting a lost or stolen smartphone back, there’s a 96 percent chance the person who finds it will snoop around on it. And, they’re not just looking for the phone number or e-mail address of the owner.

The company set out to see just how likely you are to get back a phone you’ve lost privacy and data intact. The odds aren’t good.

To do the study, Symantec “lost” 50 smartphones, intentionally leaving them in a number of high-traffic public areas elevators, shopping malls, food courts, public transit stops and so on in major cities around the US including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, DC.

The company’s researchers then just sat back to see what would happen. They used GPS on the phone to track its location and simulated apps to mimic banking apps and social networking tools and simulated data clearly labelled as ‘private pictures’ or ‘HR salaries’.

Nearly all of the phones were found and used and half of the finders contacted the owners. But all too often those same people who “did the right thing” by calling the owner also crossed the line at the same time snooping around on the owner’s phone.

“Even the people who attempted to return the phones made attempts to view the data on them,” said Kevin Haley, director of Symantec’s security response group. “In fact, 96 percent of our lost cell phones were accessed by their finders.”

The study also shows that finders of the lost devices attempted to access more than just the owner’s identity:

six out of ten finders attempted to view social media information and e-mail

eight out of ten finders tried to access corporate information

one of every two finders tried to run an app that appeared to allow access to a remote computer or network

The study’s authors said never mind the private text messages or embarrassing photos you might have on your phone finders attempt to access much more private information.

“Not only does out research show that your private pictures, social media accounts and e-mail are going to be accessed if your phone is lost and found, nearly half of the finders tried to access the owner’s bank account,” Mr Haley said. He added, “We don’t know what people’s intentions were, but when you look at the banking app, that’s not to find the owner of the device.”

Mr Haley said the study shows people are “naturally curious when temptation is put in front of them”.

The bottom line: protect your data.

There are two simple things you can (and should) do. First make sure your phone is password protected. In the study, none of the mobile devices required a password. While a difficult-to-guess passcode is best, using even a simple four-digit code would protect the device from casual access.

Secondly, installing a remote management tool to remotely track your device can help you quickly recover a lost phone. Most device management tools also allow users to remotely delete data on the device.

While the study confirms people are jerks, it also found that people in general, are honest. Symantec’s researchers say they had a hard time leaving phones behind because of good samaritans.

Mr Haley said some of the researchers, “actually had a really hard time losing the phones because they would set it somewhere (such as on a subway) and they would get off and people would say, ‘Hey, you forgot your phone.’ So human nature is not particularly evil or bad. There are a lot of people who want to do the right thing.”

Let’s hope that’s the case here in Bermuda.

Lost & found: Why you really should password protect your smartphone.
Access attempts

Finders of lost phones tried to check out the following:

72% Private photos

57% Saved passwords

43% Online banking app

source: Symantec's "Operation Honey Stick" Study

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Published March 14, 2012 at 2:00 am (Updated March 14, 2012 at 9:17 am)

Finders peekers: what happens when you lose your phone

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