More Access Can Mean More Problems

By Brett Burney

Dire warnings about securing your mobile phone may seem a bit pretentious—after all, it’s just a phone isn’t it? Not anymore. Try visiting a wireless phone store and locating a phone that’s just a phone. It’ll take you a while, and you’ll probably end up digging around the bargain bin at the back of the store.

Just about every phone sold today has a camera and a direct connection to the mobile web. Most of these “phones” have full keyboards and flaunt multiple miniature screens.

Whereas early cell phones ran proprietary, closed operating systems, many “smart phones” today will run applications developed by myriad different developers (e.g., the iPhone App Store).

Our “cell phones” today are more like portable computers that allow us to check e-mail, author documents, record (and send) voice memos, send text messages to family and colleagues, snap (and send) pictures and videos, download maps, and generally keep us in contact with our clients and co-workers. All the increased functionality is fantastic, but it requires amplified vigilance to secure all the information that we now carry around with us.

Online with Caution
One of the reasons why mobile devices can do so much more is because they’re always connected to the Internet. Today’s wireless cellular networks carry gobs of data in addition to voice calls. That’s why you can get your e-mail on your Black-Berry and surf the latest scores on your Palm Pre.

Many of these devices also have the power to connect to a WiFi “hot spot,” which is speedier than most cellular networks, but riskier. Just because a smart phone is small doesn’t mean that it’s immune to the same security threats that a regular laptop encounters. It is always preferable to connect to a secure, password-protected WiFi signal rather than a chancy, less secure “open” WiFi signal.

Say Cheese!
Having a camera built into a mobile device inevitably raises a few issues around privacy and security. Many courthouses across the country now prohibit mobile devices because they realize how easy it is to snap a picture and send it swirling around the Internet in a matter of seconds. There are iPhone applications, for example, that allow you to take a picture and immediately upload it to, where it can be shared universally. Similarly, today pictures can be snapped and immediately attached to a “tweet” posted on Twitter.

A Voice in Your Pocket
Voice communications are changing as well. In addition to the “regular” voice call over a cellular network, many mobile devices can use the popular voice-over-IP (VoIP) service Skype, which allows them to “call” other computers in their Skype network for free or make outbound calls for a small fee. This type of service may sound redundant because you can already make calls on your phone, but having the option of doing an end run around the cellular providers can be a wise investment. It’s obvious that video-conferencing “in your hand” is next on the horizon.

Portable Networks
In addition, many smart phones today provide some form of virtual private network (VPN) feature that will literally allow you to control one or more computers from wherever you are. All you need is a strong cell signal or access to a secure WiFi hot spot.

Many online document services such as Google Docs offer a convenient method for accessing and composing documents on a smart phone, which can be helpful when you’re out on the road away from a “real” computer.

Protect Thy Phone
In the past, losing a cell phone meant losing only a handful of phone numbers. Losing today’s smart phone is like losing your laptop—there is a gold mine of sensitive and confidential information on your phone that shouldn’t be allowed in the wrong hands.

Guard your mobile device like your wallet or purse. That may be simple, common sense, but we’re accustomed to thinking of a cell phone as insignificant and disposable. The biggest threat to the information we all now hold on our smart phones is physical loss—phones that get stolen, left in a taxi, or dropped in a toilet.

Next, program a pass code or password into your phone that will be required before the device can be operated. Many folks consider this an inconvenience when they have to type the code in every time, but it will at least prevent someone from getting easy access to your information.

Lastly, make regular backups of your mobile device so you’re covered in the event of a loss. Most Palm, Black-Berry, Windows Mobile, and iPhone devices have associated software packages for making periodic backups. You would be well served to use them.

Brett Burney is principal of Burney Consultants LLC ( and focuses his time on bridging the chasm between the legal and technology frontiers of e-discovery. He also provides skilled trial technology support to a wide range of clients. You may e-mail him at

Copyright 2009

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