Lose your phone ... and your life

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 April, 2012, 12:00am


Lose or have your smartphone stolen - as thousands of Hongkongers did last year - and it's almost guaranteed that someone will check your personal e-mails, look through your photos and try to log onto your Facebook account.

These are the findings of a recent study by internet security firm Symantec, which commissioned a firm to lose 50 smartphones in five major cities in America and Canada.

The study found that phone finders had few qualms about accessing sensitive information, with 96 per cent of them searching the phones for personal and corporate information. In Hong Kong, the number of handsets being lost or stolen is rising, with more than 4,600 cases last year, up 15 per cent from 2010.

The city has among the highest mobile phone penetration rates in the world, with many Hongkongers owning two or more devices.

In January and February, nearly 900 mobile phones have been reported lost or stolen, according to police figures.

Many of these handsets are smartphones, typically loaded with personal and corporate information.

Smartphone applications for services, such as online banking, often come with saved passwords for convenience, posing further risks for owners.

The phones in the study were placed in high-traffic public areas such as shopping malls, food courts, train and bus stations.

Each phone had a collection of simulated corporate and personal data as well as tracking devices to see what information would be accessed by the finder.

Personal data such as Facebook, banking software applications and personal e-mail were accessed on nine out of 10 devices, while 83 per cent had their corporate data accessed.

Symantec senior systems engineer Wallace Lam Cheuk-fai, a specialist in mobile phone security, said Hong Kong was a few years behind the security trends in America and Europe.

'Many people view their smartphones as just a phone but with more functions. But this is not the case,' he said.

'The mobile phone penetration rate is very high and Hong Kong is a very crowded area. So within a very short time, a lost phone will be discovered by someone.

'The risk is your identity. Even on Facebook, we may set some photos to private [setting], but users don't think of this for the photos on their smartphones.'

Lam said the trend for many firms, especially in the insurance sector, was to encourage their staff to 'bring their own device'. But that jeopardises corporate data in the event of theft.

A way to protect business data is to have remote access to smartphones, but getting staff to agree to company control of their phones is a challenge.

Local government departments and construction and telecommunications firms are now seeking to install security programs for their employees' mobile phones.

They include remote locking or deleting the information when a phone is lost.

A spokeswoman for Hutchison Telecommunications, which owns the 3 mobile network, said it had received about 300 reports of lost or stolen phones a month in the past 12 months.

Last week, a report by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum found that Hong Kong had the cheapest mobile phone tariffs in the world and also ranked first in terms of mobile phone coverage and international internet bandwidth.


The mobile phone penetration rate of Hong Kong, according to the ITU World Telecommunication database

Smartphone tips

Use the screen-lock function with a strong password

Install software applications that can remotely lock the smartphone or delete its information

Ask your mobile phone network provider about its security services

Back up the data on your phone regularly on a separate device