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26 Dec 2008

Will your cellphone spill your secrets

As the title suggests, Will your cellphone spill your secrets focuses on privacy exposures from lost cellphones but the same considerations apply to other gizmos of course.

The loss of a gizmo is more than just a privacy issue: we become very attached to, if not dependent on them. Speaking personally, I'm terrible at remembering names let alone phone numbers, email addresses, passwords and so forth, so I rely heavily on the technology to do the remembering for me. Naturally, being a security freak, I use encryption and other controls to protect such sensitive information so the privacy side is less of a concern than me simply losing access to all that valuable information ... so don't forget backups. Decent backups. Off-line backups with the backup media stored securely. It's a bit of a pain to take them but it's far worse to lose a gizmo (whether by leaving it on the back seat of a cab on the roof of a car, having it stolen, dropping it in a puddle or some other accident or hardware failure ... actually, thinking about it, there are quite a few ways!) and not to be able to recover the data.

Here are some simple tips to reduce the risk:
- Transfer new phone numbers from your cellphone to a diary/contacts database such as Outlook every so often, and while you're at it, look through the contacts for any that should be put on your phone. Try to make this a routine activity, perhaps once a month or two;
- Make a separate database of important contacts, for example to feed a form letter notifying them of change-of-address details. Keep a copy of this with you when you travel;
- Use encryption and other available access controls such as a PIN code to unlock your phone/SIM card, PDA etc.;
- Avoid taking all your gizmos with you when traveling - just the ones you need - and try to keep them physically about your person (e.g. not in checked-in hold baggage);
- Make an inventory of your gizmos with models, serial numbers, distinguishing marks etc. so that if you lose any, you can at least describe them properly to the Police or the Lost And Found office;
- Use those 'distinguishing marks' proactively to identify your gizmos e.g. mark the case with your name, phone number, email address or whatever, trying not to make the privacy exposure even worse but making it easier for finders to return them to you;
- Don't forget to erase personal data properly from gizmos when disposing of them. A simple 'delete' is unlikely to be sufficient. See NIST's SP800-88 for the full nine yards.

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