Upgrade Your Life: Simple security for your cell phone

Ben Patterson
Technology News Blog

Haven't bothered to password-protect your smartphone yet? You might regret the oversight the next time you leave your handset in the back seat of a cab—or worse, after it's stolen by a pickpocket.

After all, your cell phone probably contains a lot more information than just your address book. There's your e-mail to consider, your precious photos and sensitive documents, and all those stored usernames and passwords for access to your Facebook, Twitter, and (gulp!) online banking accounts.

Luckily, you can protect your iPhone, Android phone, BlackBerry, or other make of smartphone in just a few easy steps—and that's the subject of this week's episode Upgrade Your Life.

1. Lock it up
As Yahoo! News' Becky Worley notes, the first step in smartphone security—activating your handset's password lock—couldn't be easier.

For iPhone: Tap the Settings icon, the select General, Password Lock, and follow the instructions.

For Android: Go the Applications launcher, tap Settings, select Location & Security, and tap "Set up screen lock."

For BlackBerry: Go to the Options menu and select Security, Password, Set Password.

For other smartphone platforms, like WebOS or Windows Phone: Go to the settings menu and look for security options; you'll probably find the password lock settings there.

(Note: the specific menu selections may vary depending on which version of your phone's operating system is running on your device.)

Once you've chosen a password (the longer the better—and please, don't use your birthday, "1234," or "password"), you'll need to decide how long your phone will stay unlocked after you've entered your password. Longer than an hour may defeat the purpose of password-protecting your phone, while an immediate screen lock could prove annoying for heavy smartphone users. Becky's recommendation: five minutes, give or take.

2. Beef up your security
Want a password that's a little tougher to crack than a four-number PIN? Here are a few options for upping the security on your phone's screen lock.

For iPhone: The default iPhone password lock is a four-digit numeric PIN, but you can opt to select an alphanumeric password that's as long as your memory will bear. Tap General, Settings, Passcode Lock, and then flip the Simple Passcode switch to "Off." You can also set your iPhone to wipe itself after more than 10 failed password attempts; just switch "Erase Data" to "On."

For Android: As with the iPhone, Android phones will let you chose passwords longer than four digits, with 16 being the upper limit. You can also skip the traditional password and instead trace a pattern with your finger, connecting a grid of nine dots in sequence. Meanwhile, some newer Android phones (like the Motorola Atrix 4G) boast biometric security features like fingerprint scanners, good for unlocking your phone with a swipe of your fingertip. To access the various settings, tap Settings (natch) from the Applications launcher, then select Location & Security, Set up (or Change) screen lock.

For BlackBerry: As with the iPhone, you can set your BlackBerry to wipe itself after too many failed password attempts. Go to the Options menu, then select Security, Password, customize the Number of Password Attempts field, and select Save.

3. Locate — or wipe — your lost phone
Just about every smartphone on the market comes supports GPS—and that means almost any lost or stolen smartphone can be traced via GPS, provided the handset is on and in wireless range.

For iPhone users, just install Apple's free Find My iPhone app from the App Store; it will trace lost iPhones via the MobileMe website, lock their screens, sound an alert and put a message on the display (like "I'm lost! Call 123-555-1234")—or, in a worst-case scenario, remotely erase all your sensitive data. (Click here for a real-life Find My iPhone story that happened to yours truly.)

Meanwhile, Android, BlackBerry, and Windows Phone users can try a handy app called Lookout, which boasts most of the same features as Find My iPhone and also comes with wireless backup and data management features.

4. Keep your browser from storing website passwords
One of the handiest features on the Android and iPhone mobile Web browsers is their ability to remember the usernames and passwords of oft-visited websites. The only problem, of course, is that this very same feature will make it a snap for anyone who picks up your lost iPhone to log into your Facebook profile—or, even worse, start poking around your online bank accounts.

Of course, your phone will usually ask your permission before remembering a given username and password, so you could just hit the "decline" button when it comes to online banking and other sensitive accounts. But if you'd rather be safe than sorry, you can disable your browser's auto-fill feature altogether.

For the iPhone: Tap Settings, Safari, Auto-fill, then turn the "Names & Passwords" switch off.

For Android: Open the browser, tap the Menu key, then tap settings; under the Security Settings heading, clear the "Remember passwords" checkbox.

Even if your smartphone's browser doesn't have an auto-fill feature for usernames and passwords, you should still consider clearing the "remember me" checkbox on website login pages, particularly when it comes to online banking or e-mail.

5. Secure all your other passwords
So, you stopped your browser from remembering your website passwords—but what about all those random usernames and passwords that you typed into your phone's memo application or contact book for safe keeping? Do yourself a favor and lock those passwords down, pronto.

If you're using a newer BlackBerry handset, you're in luck. Your phone should have a native, built-in password organizer, called Password Keeper, that will store any and all username and password combos, protecting them with—you guessed it—a master password. Just go to the applications menu, find the Password Keeper, select the icon, and follow the instructions.

For other smartphone users (including those with iPhones, Android phones, Windows Phone handsets, and WebOS devices), a variety of password management apps are available, including PasswordWallet1Password, LastPass, and SplashID.

— Ben Patterson is a technology blogger for Yahoo! News.

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