The Biggest Trouble with Smartphones

Everybody loves their smartphone, with global adoption soaring and new helpful apps popping up daily. Faster speeds, new models and plenty of competition to lower prices make your mobile device the center of technology innovation. But is there an ‘Achilles Heel’ to watch out for? The answer is yes — and here’s what you can do to help protect yourself.

by / February 28, 2016
Shutterstock/Maxx-Studio

The digital revolution is radically changing the way we stay informed, buy things, interact with others, become educated, and much more. As the number of our connected "things" grows exponentially, the number of apps and related functions continue to grow rapidly as well. And at the center of it all is the smartphone — which is becoming the all-powerful universal remote to life.

Take my family, for example. My son wants to play games on my smartphone. One daughter is accessing Facebook on her device while another daughter is taking pictures and sharing them with friends around the world. Meanwhile, my wife is checking out her Fitbit (smartwatch) app and sending me "cheers" or "taunts" depending on who walked more steps yesterday.

And the list of new things we can do with smartphones grows by the hour.

  • New payment apps are turning smartphones into wallets full of credit cards to buy things.
  • No need to make a call, since many use apps to get a ride with Uber or reserve a table at a local restaurant.
  • Want to read a book, just download it onto your phone at Amazon.com.
  • And just announced in the past few weeks, Volvo is launching a new app to unlock your car door and start your car. That’s right, no more keys needed. I am sure that other automakers will come out with their versions of e-keys soon.

There are hundreds of additional examples available — whether you use Android or iOS (Apple) devices. There is no doubt that smartphones are incredible multi-purpose tools, and they are only getting more powerful and influential in our lives.

What Smartphone Problems?

So what can possibly go wrong with your smartphone? Many tech magazines and online discussions focus on flaws that include your smartphone’s durability and battery life, but I’m not very alarmed with these issues. I am much more concerned about the control and access to the new “universal remote to your life.”

As you might have guessed, there is a long list of security challenges to be aware of, besides the Apple — FBI backdoor issue that has been in the news lately. A few issues on the list include mobile malware attacks, spyware, network spoofing and denial of service.

But the biggest challenge, and the issue that I think far too many people don’t take seriously enough, is listed as No. 1 on this list: Lost and stolen devices. In my view, this issue dwarfs the others and continues to require more attention — even after recent technology advances to help.

The LA Times reported in 2014 that 4.5 million smartphones were lost or stolen in the U.S. in 2013, up from 2.8 million in 2012. I mention that report due to this quote:

“The survey comes shortly after top phone manufacturers and wireless carriers announced their commitment to begin including basic anti-theft tools on all smartphones made after July 2015 for sale in the U.S. These tools will enable users to remotely lock their devices as well as remotely erase any data on the phones.”

The stolen smartphone numbers are truly staggering. According to this Wired magazine report in late 2014:

“In tech-obsessed San Francisco, more than 65 percent of robberies in early 2014 involved mobile devices. Across the bay in Oakland, the number spiked to over 75 percent, according to California State Sen. Mark Leno, who proposed a bill requiring that smartphones include ‘kill switches.’”

And while more recent studies have shown that smartphone thefts are on the decline as kill switch usage grows, the numbers are still huge.

Note: Minnesota and California both passed laws requiring manufacturers to make progress on installing anti-theft features by July 1, 2015.

If you want to learn more about kill switches, go here. This article shows smartphone owners how to set up their kill switch to help if their device is stolen.

Lost, Not Stolen

So let’s move on and assume that the number of formally reported stolen smartphones is going down (but still too high).

Why do I remain concerned? First, all these numbers are probably low, because they are from people who officially reported their device was lost or stolen. What about all the people who never report?

Second, I just had an eye-opening experience with misplaced smartphones. As I just told IoT Journal, I saw three smartphones handed in at an information desk in less than one hour at a Florida resort this month. Of the three, two had no password protection or lock on them. I was stunned.

Is this indicative of the wider population? What’s more, I doubt if those numbers will ever show up in these nationally reported numbers, because people don’t report phones they get back. What if people didn’t turn them in to the lost and found desk?

Third, what if those unprotected phones also had the ability to open car doors and start cars? Or, just tap on a pad and get a cup of coffee paid for? My fear is that our culture doesn’t yet understand that losing your smartphone is becoming like losing your wallet, car keys and much more at the same time.  

I think the Washington Post was on to something in this 2014 article which pointed out that while smartphones are getting more sophisticated, many smartphone owners are not. Or stated another way, many people do not use the technology built into new smartphones to protect their precious devices.

Fourth, I think that this Dark Reading article pointed out another important statistic worth noting on this topic: “NQ Mobile finds that slightly over half of mobile device users lock them. While consumers who have lost a smartphone or had one stolen in the past are significantly more likely to be taking basic protective measures with their current device, nearly one-third have still not learned their lesson, according to new data from NQ Mobile (NYSE: NQ), a leading global provider of mobile Internet services.”

Wrap-Up

Technology and security leaders need to be clearly training our employees on the good, the bad and the ugly with smartphones. But we can’t just beat staff over the head and yell: “Don’t lose your smartphone!”

My favorite security awareness training lesson is a fun game that end users play which depicts an airport where they need to find the lost or stolen smartphones. Using real data, the end user looks for the 12 most likely places to lose their devices.

Most people don’t find the top place in the first try. It turns out that the top place is usually transportation to (or in) the airport. Lots of people leave smartphones in rental cars, buses, taxi cabs and trams. We need more creative ways to make content “sticky” and help people be on guard against behaviors that can lead to difficult security issues.

So what’s your homework assignment? Protect your precious smartphone. The stakes are only growing.

Build good habits that help you make wise decisions. Lock your devices. Turn on your kill switch.

Further — understand the dangers of a smartphone thief.

Follow these best practices for smartphone security.

And demonstrate to others how to be careful. Actions often speak louder than words — so educate with your positive example.