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No. 975
May 8th, 2011

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Some Thoughts on Smartphones

Pretty much the only thing that’s gone less than perfectly on my two-month trip overseas is that my iPhone was stolen here in Birmingham on Friday evening.  I was sitting at a Starbucks, actually on a Skype call with Mike Blumenthal, when a tag-team of two highschoolers came over.  One of them distracted me by pretending to ask me to look something up for him on my laptop while his mate swiped my phone–a fact which I only discovered 10 minutes later as I was packing up my things.

Obviously, after the initial shock and incredible disappointment, I’ve had some time to think about the situation & felt like writing my thoughts publicly.

Theft-Related Lessons for Smartphone Owners

Based on my experiences, here are a few tips I would encourage every reader who owns a smartphone to utilize, that I wish I’d done with mine:

  1. Never charge your phone in a public place. Always wait to get back to your house or your hotel room.  If your phone is out of juice and you absolutely need it, make sure it charges either in your pocket or in your hand at all times.
  2. When you get a new phone, make sure to install an app like MobileMe or FindMyIPhone or something that will let you track the device from a desktop later on.  Those might even be the same programs, I don’t know that much about them.  All I know is that I didn’t set anything up when I first got my phone.  It seems to me this kind of app should be the first thing you install, before you even set up your email or Facebook app on your new phone. If I had spent an extra 10 minutes setting up my phone several months ago, the police would have been able to track it immediately on Friday afternoon and (probably) not only recovered the phone but nailed the thieves.  And if you have a phone now without some kind of app like these installed, take five minutes and install them now.
  3. Even if it’s a hassle, require a mobile password for your email program every time you check it. This would have saved me 99% of my headache this weekend.  But, as a result, I didn’t know which passwords the thieves might have gotten access to in my email archive, if they were able to login before I changed the password via my laptop.
  4. Use a different password for your main email account(s), Facebook account, and financial accounts at least. I’ve since made these changes, of course, but I would have had a lot fewer of them to worry about if all they’d gotten access to was my Gmail password.
  5. Attach your App Store (and any other mobile payment accounts) to a credit card that you can cancel immediately, rather than a debit account. Personally, I HATE credit cards.  If they’re not the primary, then they’re the secondary reason for the financial crisis we’re still in the middle of.  I have always paid for everything with cash, and if I can’t cover the cost of an item with what I have in the bank, then I don’t buy it.  Maybe I was naively principled to attach a debit account to mobile payments, but I know there are at least a couple of SEOs out there, from talking with them at conferences and such, who feel the same way I do about our whacked-out credit system.

Implications for My Perception of Mobile Payments and Mobile Banking Apps

As nice as it would be not to have to carry a wallet around, I’m going to think twice about NFC or QR-code related payments going forward.  Ironclad fingerprint validation is going to have to be absolutely essential if this concept is going to work.  And although I don’t keep up with this side of the mobile payment space as much as I should, there’s nothing out there I’ve heard of that seems to be even within a couple of years of this happening.

If anything, this whole episode has taught me that I want much less, not more, not even the same amount of personal information stored on my phone whenever I decide to replace it, so count me among those who will never use a mobile banking (or mobile stock portfolio) app of any kind, no matter how good the security is promised to be.


Does anyone else have any security or anti-theft suggestions they would be willing to share for other smartphone owners?

  • David – I’m an Android user and a Google apps user, so whenever I lose a phone I login to gmail and log out any other active sessions, and then change my password. This stops the leak.

    Also, I know that Android users can install the app ‘WaveSecure’ that can wipe out the memory on a lost or stolen phone…it’s a little pricey, but I suppose it’s worth it if your data is valuable enough.

    Finally, I always set a swipe code. I don’t know if that really makes a difference, but I feel like it’s a bit of a deterrent and data protection system…the only way to ‘crack’ it (as far as I know) is to reset the device.

  • Chris Reilly

    : ( I would feel very violated if somebody too my phone. It’s too important to my biz and personal life… I would miss it much more than if my wallet was taken. Sorry David!

  • Ian Williams

    Sad news David. I had my laptop security compromised a month ago and the headache of sorting all that out – cancelling cards, changing passwords for both work & personal – was seriously not good.

    I do think that the consolidation of so much into digital is a ‘putting-all-your-eggs-in-one-basket’ scenario. Its why I still have my CDs in storage. There needs to be top-notch authentication and recovery in place should phones become THE major ‘hub’ for interface between digital & the physical world.

    Apart from that, how did you like it over here? I’m not a fan of Birmingham, but there’s some nice chill countryside out towards Worcester and Hereford etc.

  • Sorry about the phone, David.

    For Android users, I highly recommend SeekDroid ( It allows you to track your phone, lock, and wipe data remotely. This of course is dependent on the phone being on after the thieves take it, but it’s better than nothing. It costs all of $0.99. Cheap insurance in my opinion.

  • Thanks for all the comments, guys.

    @Jason, glad to hear that solves the issue on Google logins. I did that exact technique within 10 minutes of the phone getting stolen so I doubt the thieves would have had any legitimate chance to access my email; they were probably just excited to get away at that point.

    @Ian I agree completely about a major re-think of the authentication paradigm on phones. I wonder if two-pronged voice recognition AND fingerprinting could eventually be scaled at that kind of level. I also think that Apple (and all the other manufacturers) ought to create a central registry for the serial numbers of stolen phones which are corroborated by a filed police report and mandate that all legit resellers scan that list first before activating a phone not purchased from the store.

    @Dan @Jason thanks for sharing those tips for Droid.

    @Ian agreed, Birmingham was not my favourite city, to put it mildly. I had hoped to get down to Coventry and Kenilworth and possibly Gloucester on the weekend but that plan was shot while I was dealing with all this. I’m now in Hastings, though, which seems great, and looking forward to SMX London next week.

  • Hey David,

    Some good did come out of this. You inspired me to lockdown my phone. I now feel a lot better. 🙂

    Thanks for the push,


  • Dave,

    Sorry to hear that you had to go through that. MobileMe and Find My iPhone are basically the same thing. Find My iPhone is an app that works through the MobileMe service Apple offers. You used to have to pay, but now the Find My iPhone service is offered for free. It allows you to wipe your phone completely with one press of a button, so really you could still use your online banking apps and have your email not prompt for the password each time because you can remotely wipe the iPhone quickly if you are sure it is stolen, and if you get it back you will still be able to restore from a backup.

    Another service that protects the same thing from happening to your laptop is called the Prey Project. They for free let you track your laptop if it is stolen, capturing screenshots, network info, and even your location through wifi triangulation. It is pretty cool. Hope you don’t have to deal with that again!

  • Sorry to hear about your phone. I recently got an Android SmartPhone, so, these tips and warnings were very helpful. Thanks for sharing your experience and the lessons learned. Security/privacy vulnerabilities in our digital world is quite scary.