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Finders of lost mobes can't resist staring at privates

Experiment: Half of them try to find the owners

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A Symantec-sponsored experiment has discovered that people who find lost smartphones* almost invariably attempt to have a sneaky peek at their owners' data.

As part of the Smartphone Honey Stick Project, 50 specially configured smartphones were deliberately abandoned in public locations (eg, food malls, public transport stops) in five North American cities. Software installed on the phones allowed independent security expert Scott Wright to monitor where a device was taken, what apps were opened on it and what information was accessed by its finder.

Wright found that an app that offered access to "private pix" was accessed in 72 per cent of cases while three-in-five of those unwittingly taking part in the experiment opened apps that appeared to offer access to private email or social network accounts. A "saved passwords" file was opened in 57 per cent of cases while a 43 per cent fancied a snoop in an "online banking" utility.

In all, finders of the "abandoned" smartphones tried to access owner's personal data in 89 per cent of cases.

Supposed links to corporate data also proved tempting. More than half (53 per cent) of the lost phones' finders browsed salary lists, while a slightly smaller number (49 per cent) attempted to access a "remote admin" app and 45 per cent tried to open apps that were ostensibly portals to business emails.

Finders attempted to access corporate data in 83 per cent of cases, only slightly less than the figure for the propensity to snoop into the supposed private data.

None of the specially configured smartphones were password-protected and just switching on the device allowed the curious finder to access a variety of potentially interesting information. Data held on the phone included the contact details of the supposed owner, readily identified in a contact directory.

Half of those who found the phones were at least honest enough to contact the owner about the supposedly lost device. A grand total of 96 per cent of lost smartphones were accessed by the finders of the device.

A full explanation of the methodology of the project, and its main findings, can be found here (PDF).

"The point of all of this is not to say that people are bad," explains Symantec's Kevin Haley in a blog post. "It's that people are naturally curious and when temptation is put in front of them they tend to bite the apple (some take many bites). The lesson to take away here is that we have to protect our mobile devices. The good news is that it is really not that hard to do.

"Two things would have protected all of the data, personal and business, on these phones. The first is password protection. Just giving the phone password-based security would have prevented the casual finder from trolling through the data. The second thing is to have the ability to remotely wipe the data off the phones once it had been lost. In this way, even if the phone fell into the hands of a determined thief, there would be no data for them to find. It is also a good idea to have software on the phone to help locate it if lost as well." ®

Bootnote

* Symantec doesn't say but pictures in its report suggest the deliberately lost phones were all Androids.

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