No piece of technology instills a greater expectation of privacy and safety in users than their primary mobile device. For many of us, the phones, PDAs and smartphones in our pockets, on our belts and in our purses represent our most private digital selves. I’m not referring to the sort of fictitious digital presence that one projects in the likes of Second Life or even MySpace; these are costume parties where the apparently naked wear the skins of the people they wish they were, be they more glamorous or tortured than the real thing. Our phones are our most trusted associates, perhaps the only entities in which we invest absolute trust. We don’t train our phones to lie about who we are, whom we know and where we go, because we rely on them to keep us mindful of these things.
Indeed, we crave ever-smarter phones so that we can use them to store ever-increasing amounts of intelligence about ourselves. Those who are most wedded to their phones tote veritable auto-dossiers. Anyone with an axe to grind, a score to settle, or a case to make against you can get most of what they need from your ever-present confidant. I’ll lay odds right now that the rising popularity of smartphones will be matched by a rise in mobile devices’ popularity as criminal evidence.
The trust that we invest in our mobile phones makes them utterly convincing witnesses against us.We worry about the government rummaging through our call records, but it takes homework to turn a call history into a weapon against you. If an adversary, be it a co-worker with designs on your job, a soon-to-be-ex-spouse, a stalker, a business competitor or an identity thief were to make off with your phone, you might be effectively defenceless. At least if someone steals your wallet, you have time to freeze your credit cards. If someone takes your phone, there’s squat you can do about it unless you password-protect it and encrypt its stored data.
Fortunately for you, you’re a tech-savvy individual. You set your phone to demand a password for keypad access. You created a PIN and used it to encrypt everything your phone will let you scramble and lock, including the contents of your SIM (subscriber information module), right?
Put your phone down and scotch that sheepish look. I have no statistics to back this up, but I’m guessing that some fraction of a per cent of phone, PDA and smartphone users secure their data. We’re sloppy about securing our mobile information because maximum convenience is the point of carrying a mobile device in the first place. Entering a PIN to unlock your phone to make a call, look up an appointment or receive an incoming text message is a pain, and you sure as hell can’t do it while you’re driving. Unless you’re the type who goes picking through your pizza looking for broken glass, your phone is probably wide open because, when you ask your phone a question, you’re in a hurry for the answer, and when your phone has something to tell you, it’s always urgent.
My phone is a BlackBerry 8700g at present, which I’ve invited vendors to try to replace. I reflexively pat my hip whenever I stand up in case it has slipped from its holster. I had it set to lock itself after a period of inactivity, but I disabled the lock because the volume of calls and messages I take exploded with expanding interest in the subject areas I cover. Unlocking it is a pain even if I only have to do it when I’ve let the device sit for an hour.
Having confessed my sloth and wishing to remount my lofty steed, I will now lock my BlackBerry. But even locked, any device is vulnerable, and you might be wise to think about what you store on your phone and how it could be used to harm you, your business, or your family.
It’s handy to carry a digital biography that could make you whole if you should ever suffer total amnesia, but perhaps some things are best committed to wet memory, despite the risk.