Finders, peekers: Lost smartphones are irresistible

Symantec intentionally 'lost' 50 mobile phones and found people can't resist prying. But two simple security measures can protect business data

Anyone who loses their mobile phone should expect the data to be accessed by the person who finds it, and business data is no exception, according to a study released this week by security firm Symantec. The good news is that two simple security measures can protect that data.

In its Smartphone Honey Stick Project, Symantec "lost" 10 phones in each of five cities, leaving them on top of newspaper boxes, in food courts, and even the ladies restroom of a Chinese restaurant. In all but one instance, people who found the phones accessed the devices, with 83 percent of people accessing one or more of the four business applications, including two human resources files, corporate email, and a remote administration tool. More than 4 out of 10 people even accessed the banking application on the device.

"We don't know what people's intention were," said Kevin Haley, director of Symantec's security response group. "But when you look at the banking app, that's not to find the owner of the device."

While many security firms have played up the increase in mobile malware, lost and stolen devices are still the biggest security threat to the data on smartphones.

But two simple security measures can protect the data on devices. In the Symantec study, none of the mobile phones had a password. While complex passcodes are best, using even a simple four-digit code would protect the devices from casual access. In addition, installing a remote management tool to remotely track the device can help to quickly recover a lost phone. Most device management tools also allow users to remotely delete the data on the device, a hedge against a more tech-savvy data thief.

While the survey found that only half of the people who found the phones attempted to return them, in general people are honest. Symantec's researchers, for example, had a hard time leaving the phones behind because of Good Samaritans, Haley said.

Some of the researchers "actually had a really hard time losing the phone, because they would set it somewhere (such as on a subway) and they would get off, and people would say, 'Hey, you forgot your phone,'" Haley said. "So human nature is not particularly evil or bad. There are a lot of people who want to do the right thing."

This story, "Finders, peekers: Lost phones are irresistible," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.