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Friday, May 20, 2005

Basics of PDA Protection


By: The Editor
Ever misplaced your handheld computer? When you turn on your Palm Pilot do you bypass the login functionality? Do you connect to the Internet with a Pocket PC that also contains critical data? Ever lost a cell phone loaded with contact information? If you can answer yes to one or more of these questions, you’re probably not taking handheld security very seriously. You’re also not alone. Handheld devices store some of our most important and private information. Yet, they’re among the least well-protected technologies around. When we think about security and computer technology, it usually centres around laptops and desktops. But the fact is, personal digital assistants (PDAs) are at least as vulnerable as their bulkier cousins, and because their protection is usually an afterthought, they’ve become a huge security blind spot. Perhaps we can chalk this up to their small size; or maybe it’s because they’re a newer technology. Regardless, we all need to become more security-savvy with regard to handheld technologies. (continued...)

Your Identity in Your Pocket

Handheld devices, be they organizers, cellular phones or two-way pagers, have moved beyond convenience. Small, powerful, and easy-to-use, they’ve become almost indispensable. They’re the natural place to store critical information we use every day. Among those bits of data are often passwords, PIN numbers, and a host of personal contact information. Collectively, these pieces make up a good chunk of your digital and financial identity. In some cases, it’s enough to help identity thieves tap into your accounts, open lines of credit in your name, or harass your friends and business contacts. If your PDA is loaded with private information, you’re basically carrying your identity around in your pocket, and when you start thinking about it that way, protecting your handheld becomes paramount.

Now Where Did I Put That?

Physical loss is probably the most obvious security risk for PDA users. Handheld computers and cell phones invariably end up in the back seats of taxis, on restaurant tables, and in lost and found drawers everywhere. With regard to physical loss, responsibility for your handheld rests squarely on your shoulders—and it may be time to give yourself a good talking to. Make an accounting of what you’ve stored in your PDA. Is it really the best place for your account passwords? Does it make sense to store PIN numbers on something you may leave on the train? Come up with a PDA policy for yourself, including what you put in your handheld and where you take it. If you’re the type who easily misplaces things, be strict with yourself. Don’t give yourself the opportunity to leave your identity lying around. Finally, and most importantly, make full use of your PDA’s built-in security mechanisms.

Use It or Lose It

Handheld devices are not without their own defences. Because they essentially run mini-versions of desktop operating systems, most handheld computers have password-protected account functionality. So do cellular phones. The problem is, most of us don’t use that protection. For the sake of convenience, we just turn on our phones or power up our Palms and proceed with business. But, actively using your handheld’s security features is a powerful method of defence against potential data theft. So, just as you would with your other computer accounts, come up with a non-obvious user name and password, and set up your handheld to prompt for login each time you power up.

Beyond login functionality, there are other forms of security associated with PDAs. Handheld computers have become quite robust, supporting a wide variety of software applications. They can send and receive email, browse the Internet, and run spreadsheets. Many of these programs provide application-level password protection or data encryption technologies. Don’t ignore those safeguards. Learn how to use them and configure them at a level commensurate with your potential exposure. As the quality and quantity of software offerings increase, so do the potential security risks, and you need to protect yourself accordingly.

That also means acting with the same kind of caution and common sense you use with your larger computers. For example, be careful when adding new software to your PDA. Just as you would with software on your laptop, make certain you trust the manufacturer and distributor of a program before loading it on your handheld. What looks like a benevolent program on the surface may have malicious code lurking within.

Business or Pleasure?

Many people use their PDAs for both business and private affairs, often storing client contact information, work passwords, and other corporate-confidential information alongside personal data. You may be one of those people. If so, check with your IT department about your company’s PDA policies. You might have to amend your handheld habits to conform with your employer’s policies—perhaps splitting your personal and business information into two different accounts, or maybe even placing them on separate devices. In addition, make sure you’re running any security software required by your company. It’s possible they may not require anything at the moment. However, as new technologies become available for handhelds, corporations will likely begin incorporating those protections into their security plans.

Handhelds and the Internet

More and more PDAs are routinely accessing the Internet. As a result, handheld computers are increasingly vulnerable to the same online threats as desktop and laptop computers. Viruses, worms, and Trojan horses written specifically to infect handhelds are serious realities, and Symantec is working at the leading edge to counter those threats. Symantec recently launched Symantec AntiVirus; for Handhelds. This new product, which protects Palm OS- and Microsoft Pocket PC-compatible devices, runs unobtrusively in the background, constantly scanning downloaded files and emails for malicious code. It also performs a scan each time you synchronize or add an expansion card to your device. Like Symantec’s desktop and laptop products, Symantec AntiVirus for Handhelds supports LiveUpdate™, a patented technology which keeps your virus definitions and security software at the cutting edge. With Symantec AntiVirus on your handheld computer, you’ll be protected against each new wave of online attacks.

Handheld security is serious business, and it’s time individuals and companies start treating it that way. For your part, act with common sense and heightened awareness with regard to your PDA. Use its full range of built-in security options and think twice the next time you find yourself casually setting your handheld on the seat next to you. You never know who might pick it up when you leave.