Pay Attention to Old School Security

Carl Weinschenk

Mobile security is a huge issue. Individuals and companies are given a tremendous amount of best practice advice on how to protect data. The underlying assumption – and one that is held so deeply that it rarely is stated – is that the lion’s share of this protection is against electronic assaults.

Reports are surfacing, however, that suggest people should also be set to protect themselves from a resurgence of theft: good old (not good as in positive, of course) physical stealing of devices. Though it seems so antiquated, it is a trend that is growing, at least according an Associated Press story posted by Fox.

The story begins with vignettes describing some thefts. The establishing paragraph follows:

These brazen incidents are part of a ubiquitous crime wave striking coast to coast. New York City Police report that more than 40 percent of all robberies now involve cell phones. And cell phone thefts in Los Angeles, which account for more than a quarter of all the city's robberies, are up 27 percent from this time a year ago, police said.

The dynamic is not a good one. On one hand, the devices themselves are far more attractive, functional and valuable than a generation ago. On the other, people store more valuable things on the devices. This includes the emotionally valuable, such as family pictures and videos, and financially sensitive data, such as banking passwords. Devices used for business of course make the thefts even more dangerous.

The story ends with details of what is being done to stem the tide. St. Louis, for instance, is considering an ordinance requiring anyone who sells a cell phone to have a secondhand dealers’ license. A national database of stolen phones is set to launch late next year.

The State-Journal Register in Springfield, Ill., has a nicely done story on what apparently is the database plan referred to in the AP story. The idea is to require large wireless carriers – the story says “some of the largest” carriers, though no explanation of whether some will be exempt – to create a database of phones by October 31. A cross-carrier database will be activated in mid-November 2013. In this way, stolen phones can be identified when new owners attempt to reactive them.

Local papers doing national stories always bring in a local angle. In this case, the figures on stolen phones give perspective on the depth of the problem. In the relatively small city of Springfield, 200 phones were stolen in 2010 and 2011 and 160 have been taken so far this year. Honest Abe would be aghast.

The news is full of examples of theft. Two recent random examples: A 15-year-old girl in Corpus Christi, Texas was arrested for trying to sell a stolen phone back to its owner and a man was arrested in San Francisco for stealing a phone he had borrowed. Individually, of course, these are minor crimes. But, taken all together, they represent a trend to which attention must be paid.

The bottom line is that people need to pay attention to their phones. For businesses, the trend should make remote wiping capabilities, encryption and all other best-practices procedures an even higher priority than when the only real worry was electronic thievery.

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