Having a phone for any length of time, it's easy to get attached to it, to grow accustomed to it being around and to grow comfortable with storing sensitive or personal information on it. But what if, in the blink of an eye, it were to disappear … forever?
Phones are lost more now than ever, thanks to the rise of mobile phone adoption and our ever-more-busy lifestyles. We are constantly tweeting, texting and emailing with our phones, switching hands, pockets and running from place to place. It's easy to misplace a phone and leave it behind. And the profitability of flipping phones on Craigslist is higher than ever, so swift hands are always looking to grab a stranded phone for a quick turnaround for a couple hundred dollars.
And that's what we have to assume happened to Russell Holly of geek.com. At CES 2011, like many small gadgets do, his HTC EVO 4G went missing. He explains, though, that he had plans of switching to Verizon Wireless when he returned from the show anyway, so it was a loss he says he got over fairly quickly.
He finally accepted the fact that he would likely never see his phone again.
But this past Friday, memories of his trusty 'ol EVO were rekindled when a plethora of self-shots of a man Holly didn't know started showing up in his Google+ Instant Uploads album. There were images of this mystery man, his friends, family, a lady with a large bag of coins and people passing around a handle of Don Roberto tequila. Best of all, these photos were geotagged in Guadalajara, of all places.
Despite his efforts to remote wipe the device or revoke access to his Instant Upload service from the mystery man in Guadalajara, Holly is still receiving all sorts of strange (and disconcerting) photos on his Google+ account. And he has heard mum in response to his emails to Google customer service.
Holly isn't worried about getting his phone back. The chances of that even being possible are slim to none, and it's not worth it anyway – the phone has since slipped into irrelevancy. But he is worried about what sort of repercussions this could have on his Google account. For example, a friend told him his Latitude sets him in Guadalajara instead of his home. Holly says:
"Google has yet to respond to my requests for aid, but really I feel like the core problem here is with Google’s service. This device is able to upload photos to my account without my password, and I have no control over the device from here. I can’t de-authorize the phone remotely like I can with Google Music. I can’t remove the device remotely from my Google Account even if I wanted to. The lack of user control here creates a very different context when you have photos being instantly uploaded to a user account without the need for a password.
Google’s whole business model is to take information it gets from me any apply it to advertising targeted specifically at me. When Google crawls my account, there are now more than sixty photos that have nothing to do with me or my interest. A woman with a bag of gold coins, or a few people holding a large bottle of Don Roberto tequila have nothing to do with me. What’s more is these photos are geotagged, which is also attached to my account. A city I have never been to inside a country I have never been to."
But Holly's case isn't the first we've seen or heard of. And it definitely isn't going to be the last. You may remember Kathy McCaffery who lost her iPhone during a cruise in April and later discovered that a member of the crew had picked it up and started documenting his every move with it. All of the pictures Nelson (that's the guy's name) took appeared in McCaffery's iCloud account, and she decided to go public with it by sharing them on her Facebook account in an album titled "Stolen iPhone Adventures".
With all of that being said, it's never a bad idea to take the extra precautions to protect your phone and, in turn, your information in the event your phone unexpectedly goes missing.
The first precaution is to immediately stop storing sensitive files (pictures, videos, PDFs, etc.) on your device locally and only access them via cloud. Remote wiping doesn't always wipe the SD card, so you're best to stick to storing personal information remotely.
Second you should creating a password or PIN lock for your device. Every mobile OS has the option and while it may not completely stop a thief from getting into your phone, it may slow them down long enough for you to notice the phone is missing and allow you to locate or wipe the device before any sensitive information is compromised. But passwords aren't fool-proof and I've even locked myself out of my own phone before. When it comes to a lost phone, all a password will do is protect your information; it won't necessarily keep them from wiping the phone and using it as their own. And after they wipe it, aside from the work of carriers and the FCC, it's gone for good.
The next step is to setup a remote tracking and wipe utility. On iOS, this function is a built-in feature of iCloud. Simply navigate to Settings, iCloud and toggle "Find My iPhone" to the ON position. From there, simply open icloud.com from any computer and you can locate your iDevice or remote lock and wipe it. You can also send a message to the finder, alerting them that you will contact the authorities or advising them on how to return it.
On Android, while the feature may not be built-in, there are loads of different options, such as Lookout Mobile Security, Norton or Antivirus Free from AVG. Although the service may vary, the concept is the same: remote lock and wipe to prevent your data from being accessed and to track down your phone. But what if you forget (read: choose not to out of apathy or the confidence that you're "too good" to lose a phone) to install one of these applications prior to losing your phone? By going to the Play Store from your computer's browser, you can remotely install Plan B by Lookout on your phone after you lose it and proceed to track it down.
Unfortunately, if your phone is in Guadalajara and a random guy starts to (unknowingly) upload oodles of self-pics to your Google+ account a year and a half after the fact, there isn't much you can do. And you should probably just give up on recovering your phone. The least you could hope for is that Google can step in and help.
None of these precautions prevent a phone from getting lost or a tech savvy thief from wiping the device or powering it down before you realize the phone is gone. But, at the end of the day, these simple preparations can at least prevent private information and data from getting into the wrong hands. And, who knows, they could come in handy at some point.