Security for Handheld DevicesJennifer Martinez
Mobile phones, PDAs or so-called smart phones -- which are like laptops, PDAs and cell phones rolled into one -- have become an essential accessory for today's busy lifestyles. Cell phones and PDAs are convenient, portable and they're becoming ever more sophisticated. You can take them almost anywhere, bringing along crucial notes and critical information, making yourself available anytime, anywhere.
So, what do you have stored on your PDA or cell phone? Maybe some personal phone numbers and addresses? Business leads? Perhaps even a few PIN numbers and passwords? Take a quick inventory. There's probably some pretty important information stored on these gadgets. Here's the next question: How would you feel if your phone was stolen or if your Pocket PC ended up in someone else's hands? Or what if a virus drained your cell's battery and suddenly you couldn't be reached?
For this reason, handheld security has become just as vital as these devices are to our everyday lives. Here are some of the top security threats to handhelds and how to better secure your devices:
Tip No. 1: Keep track of your gadgets Unfortunately, the very portability of handheld devices makes them prime candidates for one of the most basic security issues we face -- physical loss. Whether you leave a device on a table at a café, at the kids' ballgame or in your unattended backpack where it can be easily stolen, losing your handheld can have serious consequences. For example, if a mischievous character gets hold of your cell phone, he may just take it for a joy ride, making prank calls to Siberia, Sri Lanka, or Timbuktu, all on your dime. If you lose your PDA, you may lose data such as the notes recorded at a brainstorming session, or the phone number of an important new contact. And simply being without your cell phone when you're expected to have it can be frustrating and annoying.
So, it's critical to keep track of your handhelds. Take special care with them, just as you would your wallet or checkbook. And don't use your handheld as the sole repository for important information. Keep a backup of phone numbers and addresses on your computer or in a day planner. You may also want to minimize the amount of personal and financial information on your handhelds. No matter how convenient it might be, don't keep PIN numbers, passwords or account numbers on portable devices. And if you want to keep your personal notes personal, don't store them for long periods of time on your PDA.
Tip No. 2: Set strong passwords Take full advantage of your cell phone and PDA's password-protection features. While passwords are not foolproof, they go a long way toward deterring the casual PDA or cell phone thief. You may also want to consider protecting your data with file encryption, especially if you use your PDA for business. There are a number of reasonably priced encryption tools, which will scramble your data, making it available only to those persons who have a key. You may also want to check with your IT department at work to make sure you're keeping up with company encryption and password policies.
Tip No. 3: Stave off viruses Most of the conversation about cell phone viruses has centered around why they're not much of a threat -- at least not yet. While it's true experts haven't detected a lot of damaging handheld viruses in the wild (most of them have been "proof-of-concept" prototypes), their numbers are growing and they are becoming more sophisticated. The reality is, cell phone and PDA viruses exist and trends in recent activity make it clear that we need to start taking them seriously.
Some handheld viruses are transferred via wireless connections (such as between Bluetooth-enabled devices). Others are downloaded from the web, masquerading as attractive applications, such as the case of the "Skulls Trojan horse." When you download and execute the program, it replaces your application icons with skulls and crossbones. It also causes most of your handheld programs to cease functioning.
Meanwhile, some new viruses are self-propagating. "Mabir," for example, sits on your smart phone and waits for text messages to arrive. It then sends a reply to the text message sender. The reply message includes an attachment containing a copy of the virus itself. This is a significant development because Mabir spreads a lot like an ordinary worm. It has the ability to send itself between an infected phone and other compatible smart phones. In other words, it's not limited to short-distance transmissions.
Sophisticated viruses for PDAs have also been emerging. One of the most portentous is "Brador," a classic Trojan horse. Once initiated, it sends the attacker an email containing the IP address of your PDA. The attacker can then make a connection to your handheld and take it over, viewing and downloading files or even uploading more malicious code. While Brador, even at its zenith, did not infect a large number of devices, it did prove just how far malicious code for PDA's have progressed.
Fortunately, protecting handhelds from viruses is not difficult. In fact, you can secure them pretty much the same way you secure your computers and laptops: by installing a good antivirus solution. When you choose your antivirus protection, just make sure it's a product that can be updated easily. That way, when a new handheld threat emerges, you'll be equipped to immediately protect your smart phone or PDA.
Handheld devices keep us informed and in touch when we're on the go. They're also becoming more and more like regular computers, which means we need to protect them the same way.
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