Cell phones, personal handheld organizers and mobile data devices such as the Blackberry have become the digital equivalent of those old "little black books." They contain plenty of important, personal data, all accessible at the click of a few buttons.
Convenient? Yes. Dangerous? Doubly so. Just ask Paris Hilton.
Last Sunday, clever pranksters managed to access the Web account of the hotel-heiress' Sidekick II, a device from T-Mobile that wirelessly stores and accesses information online. Within hours of the "hack," all of Hilton's private data -- unlisted phone numbers of famous friends, personal digital photos, reminders of calls to make and parties to attend -- were available to anyone with Web access.
T-Mobile and federal investigators are still trying to determine how the data thieves managed to break into Hilton's T-Mobile account. But wireless technology experts say that such a high-profile breach should remind everyone to take important -- but often neglected -- security precautions regarding their handheld devices.
Keep Track of It. Don't leave your cell phone or mobile device unattended. Once thieves have your device, they have instant access to anything and everything stored on it or that can be wirelessly accessed by it.
Lock It Up. If possible, make use of passwords or personal identification numbers to lock out features -- long-distance calling, access to the wireless Web -- and safeguard information stored on your handheld. The passwords or PINs should be long and difficult so others can't easily guess them. Don't use your cell phone's number as the lock-out PIN, for example. And they should be changed about every month or so.
Dump Data. Don't store sensitive information -- credit card numbers, bank account data, risqué digital photos, private phone numbers -- on your device. Delete other data -- old text messages, recently called phone numbers, outdated e-mails and schedule reminders -- as soon as they're no longer needed. This might be inconvenient, but think about how you'd feel if you started getting crank calls in the middle of the night just because one of your friends lost their cell phone with your unlisted number on speed dial.
Turn It Off. Many mobile devices now have wireless Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios that allow seamless data connections to other nearby devices and the broader Internet. Disabling such wireless features when they're not needed prevents techie hackers from sneaking information off your device and from installing malicious software such as viruses and worms.
Sound the Alarm. If you lose your cell phone or suspect your account has been hacked, call your service provider to put an immediate stop on your account. Also alert the appropriate network security personnel if your device had wireless access to your office e-mail system or personal Internet service. And you'll have to warn friends and family that your loss might put their own privacy in jeopardy as well.
Remember the R's. When you replace, retire, return, recycle or resell an old cell phone or handheld device, remove its memory to destroy old data. On more recent cell phones, this might be as simple as pulling a tiny card called a SIM, or Subscriber Identity Module, that may be usable in newer models. On other devices and older model phones, you may have to manually delete every entry stored in non-removable memory.