Password-Protect Your Cell Phone--Learn from My Mistake

I got home last night, felt for my cell phone, a Treo 650 that I've had since 2005, and found only an empty holster. Crap. I immediately flashed back to when I probably lost it. I was sitting on the floor of the BART train because I wanted to talk

I got home last night, felt for my cell phone, a Treo 650 that I've had since 2005, and found only an empty holster.

Crap.

I immediately flashed back to when I probably lost it. I was sitting on the floor of the BART train because I wanted to talk with a friend, there weren't enough seats and, well, in San Francisco it's not THAT uncommon to see middle-aged professionals sitting on the carpeted floor of the train. My phone holster doesn't have a flap or cover and a few times in the past sitting or crouching has caused my phone to fall out of the case.

No panic. I make a habit of regularly backing up my phone data. All my data was safe and sound in my home computer.

And then the second wave of realization struck me and I was afraid. All of my personal data--more than 700 personal and business contacts--was floating around on a BART train.

CRAP.

Information about my family, my friends, all my appointments for the last two years and for several months into the future, including flight confirmation numbers, doctor appointments, birthdays--all sorts of private information was now possibly in the hands of some unknown person. Crap, CRAP, CRAP!

Maybe my friend that I was talking with had noticed the phone on the floor of the train. Maybe some nice suburban commuter had turned the phone in to the station agent. Maybe I would get it back...BART has a pretty good lost-and-found system. Or maybe it was in the hands of someone who is snoopy and nosy and mean-spirited. Who knows?

I called the wireless carrier from a land line and deactivated service. I thought about all the information about my family that I had possibly put in the hands of a stranger. Why hadn't I used a power-on password to protect my private data? I solemnly promised to use a password on my new phone. (I also wondered, "Do I still have an alarm clock that works?" Yes, I use my phone's alarm system to wake up in the morning.) Then I thought of more pleasant things like what kind of new phone I should get.

=+=+=+=

With the dawn, and the ringing of an unfamiliar jangle, came a new day. I came to work and there, sitting on my desk was my phone.

I almost wept.

Here's what I actually did:

1) I assigned a power-on password to my phone.

2) I updated the owner information on the device: Previously it had had the old address where I lived when I bought the phone. I deleted the address information and put my work phone number where a finder would be able to call and at least leave me a message to arrange the phone's return. I deleted the address and ZIP code from the owner information. No need to make identity theft too easy.

3) I committed to a $100 reward for return of the phone. I don't really care about the phone instrument itself, but I do care about the (now password-protected) data. I have no illusions about the strength of the password protection, but it would deter a casual finder from easily accessing my most important data. My Labs colleague Tiffany Maleshefski asked how I arrived at $100 for a reward--she thought I should go higher. Good question. I guess $100 is the value I put on my personal data. If you have a good formula for figuring out the reward value for a personal phone, I'd love to hear it.

4) I marked up the phone case with "Reward offered" with a Sharpie. I added my contact phone number and reward information on the battery too. (I hesitated before marking up the battery, unsure if Sharpie ink would have some deleterious effect on the battery case. In the end I decided to take the chance.)

5) I've decided to make daylight-saving time day the day I check the batteries in my smoke detectors AND the day I review my personal disaster recovery plan, including how I back up and protect the most important device in my life, my cell phone. Oh, and I'm getting a new holster with a clasp.