My daughter Octavia has a nice, new smartphone, but not by choice. A thief recently snatched her old one. No harm done, except to the family budget and to Octavia’s faith in humanity.
There’s a lot of vital information on our phones, but there are ways to protect that information in case it gets lost or stolen. Tools for Apple Inc.’s iPhone and phones running Google Inc.’s Android software can back up your stored data, encrypt it so nobody else can use it, track the location of a stolen phone, or just shut down a lost device so it’s no longer usable.
There’s no excuse for not backing up the files on your phone, and it’s child’s play on an iPhone. The iTunes software on your PC or Mac will back up everything with a mouse click. Or you can activate the iCloud backup service. Then your phone will transfer up to five gigabytes of data to Apple’s Internet servers whenever the phone is in range of a Wi-Fi wireless Internet connection.
You also get unlimited backup of everything purchased from Apple’s iTunes store, including music and movies.
It’s a little more complicated on Android.
Start by synching the phone with an online Google account. That way, your address book, appointment calendar, e-mail, photos, and music are constantly backed up.
If you must buy a new Android, just enter your Google account, and your data reappears on the new device.
For other files, like documents, you can easily copy them to a desktop computer by plugging in the phone, then dragging and dropping.
For backing up your app library, I recommend the well-named App Backup and Restore, available free at the Google Play store.
Pretty much all smartphones allow the use of a password, providing a barrier for any thief trying to access your data.
Apple takes it to the next level by encrypting password-protected data for additional security.
Newer editions of Android, versions 3 and 4, also offer encryption, but the majority of the world’s Androids are still running version 2. Still, there are encryption apps aplenty in the Google Play store. DroidCrypt, for instance, costs $2.89 and can scramble documents, photos, or videos stored on the phone’s flash memory drive. Of course, you’ve got to manually encrypt each file or folder. And DroidCrypt won’t protect the contents of your address book. Still, it’s better than nothing.
Whether or not you use encryption, it still makes sense to avoid putting sensitive information on your phone. I use the Bank of America app only to locate nearby ATMs; any activity that requires personal data gets done on my home PC.
If you’re phone is lost or stolen, and still switched on, you can find it with the right tool. Apple makes it easy with a built-in “Find My iPhone” feature.
Switch it on before you lose the phone. Now you can log onto Apple’s iCloud website from your computer and see the phone’s location on a map. You can also send a message to whoever has it, and have the phone chirp an alarm.
Android does not come with a built-in phone finder service, but there are apps to do the job. Perhaps the best-known, Lookout, is a free download that lets you ping your missing phone with a text message. The phone responds with an e-mail that includes a map of the phone’s location and an approximate address. You can also remotely order the phone to sound a loud alarm.
Lookout also scans your other apps to detect viruses or malware. The premium version, priced at $29.99 a year, can remotely lock the phone to prevent others from using it, or wipe all of its stored data — services the iPhone provides for free.
The lockout feature in Lookout is a little expensive, though; for a cheaper alternative, there’s Cerberus, which offers phone tracking, lockout, and remote data wiping for a one-time fee of $3.85.
But Cerberus has nothing like Lookout’s Plan B, a free app that can track down an Android phone even if its owner never installed the full version of Lookout. The Google Play website can install apps on your phone even if you have misplaced it. So log on and install Plan B, and the software will e-mail you the phone’s location. And if the phone is on the move, just send it the word “locate” via text messaging. It’ll e-mail you an update.
I’m glad Octavia didn’t know about Plan B; she might have tried tracking the thieves. And phones are a lot easier to replace than kids.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.