Secure your Android phone

Protect your Android device--and the data stored on it--with built-in tools and helpful third-party apps.

Whether you paid $500 for your Android phone or got it for a pittance with your new cellular contract, it's a good bet that the data stored on your handset is at least as valuable as the device itself. If your phone is ever lost or stolen, either you'll be glad you took precautions to protect all that data, or you'll sorely wish you had done so. In this article, I'll walk you through setting up Android's built-in security tools and suggest a few third-party extras that add valuable safeguards for your personal information.

Lock Your Phone

Unlike the BlackBerry and other mobile handsets that use alphanumeric passcodes to keep interlopers from messing with your data, Android uses a novel system called an unlock pattern. Rather than punch in a code on a keypad, you swipe your fingertip across the screen in a prespecified pattern, connecting a series of dots along the way. If the pattern you swipe matches the pattern previously entered into the phone's memory, the phone unlocks. If it doesn't unlock, try again.

Like a passcode, the security of an unlock pattern is directly related to the number of data points it contains. Just as a six-digit code is likely to be safer than a four-digit one, a pattern connecting six dots will be harder to break than one with only four dots. (And four dots is the minimum number of points for any unlock pattern.)

To set a passcode in Android, open the Settings menu and tap Location & security. If you haven't set an unlock pattern before, you'll see Set unlock pattern listed under the Screen unlock pattern heading. If there's already an unlock pattern in place, it'll say Change unlock pattern. In either case, tap that option to get to the Draw an unlock pattern screen. (If you already have a pattern entered, you'll need to confirm it before creating a new one.)

You can begin drawing your new unlock pattern by touching your finger down on any dot on the screen and then swiping your finger over nearby dots to connect them in any pattern vertically, horizontally, or diagonally. The more dots you connect, the better, and more complex patterns will be more secure than simple patterns. While it may be tempting to, say, connect four dots in a simple L shape, doing so will likely result in your phone being breached by the first interloper to pick it up. Sadly, convenience and security can sometimes be mutually exclusive, and this is definitely one of those cases. If you really want to lock your phone, don't wimp out on the unlock pattern.

Where's Your Phone?

Whether you've let it slip it between the sofa cushions, left it on a restaurant table, dropped it in a busy airport, or had it stolen out of your car, a missing cell phone can be hard to recover. Fortunately, Android's built-in GPS functions can make it easy to find a phone that's gone AWOL--if you're running the right software. The Android Market offers several good apps for tracking down a missing handset.

One of the simplest location trackers for Android is called Where's My Droid. This simple GPS-driven app lets you create a secret "attention word" or passphrase that you can use to trigger a find-me mode on your phone via text message. When your phone goes missing, you'll have two options: Either text your standard attention word to trigger a loud ring that will let you find the phone when you're sure you're within earshot, or text your GPS attention word, and the phone will reply with its exact latitude and longitude so you can drive to its location and pick it up. While this app won't do anything to protect your data from theft, it does make it easy to recover a phone that's simply vanished from sight.

Advanced Security

For more robust security options coupled with the ability to track your phone's whereabouts, two good options stand out. TenCube WaveSecure and Mobile Defense both give you the ability to locate your phone via a secure Web site, so you can not only get the GPS coordinates of your device, but also see that location on a map. And like Where's My Droid, both services let you set off an alarm on your phone that will make it easy to locate if you're within hearing range.

If your phone is truly lost, WaveSecure and Mobile Defense both offer additional tools to help you get your phone back. With each, you can remotely lock or unlock your phone to either prevent thieves from getting at the phone or enable a good Samaritan to get in if so desired. More important, you can use these apps to remotely back up and then wipe all your personal data off the device in the event that nobody turns it in to you--so you can not only get your latest data back, but also protect it from falling into the wrong hands.

For comprehensive tips about Android and reviews of the best apps and devices to help you get the most out of the mobile operating system, order PCWorld's Android Superguide, on CD-ROM or in a convenient, downloadable PDF file.

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Robert Strohmeyer

PC World (US online)
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