Mobility

Beware of scary fates awaiting your mobile device

Grim events can plague your mobile device this Halloween season - and throughout the year. Learn what you can do to ward off malicious spirits - and humans.

Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays and I've often compared it to working in IT - scary at times but with plenty of goodies to balance it out (however I prefer gadgets, apps and cool functions to Swedish fish and Tootsie Rolls).

Mobility itself is a topic with both risks and rewards. For those of us who outsource more and more of our routine or essential tasks to our smartphones and tablets, any issue that strikes can be a frightening ordeal indeed. Here are five ghoulish tips on how to handle - or hopefully prevent - such encounters.

1. Damage

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Damage? Yep, it happens, often despite all precautions. The iPhone gets dropped on the concrete. The Android falls into the boiling pot of spaghetti. The iPad is sat on by mistake. While they don't often turn out like Mr. Bones here, the results aren't pretty. What can you do besides hope it doesn't happen?

  • Avoid one-handed operation, or using the device while walking, running, or multi-tasking (this last can be a real challenge I'll admit). I actually keep an old Blackberry Bold as an MP3 player for when I go running; if it drops and breaks I can just open a box of old Blackberries at the office then select another.
  • Apply anti-glare film to your screen to help soften any blows.
  • Get a protective cover such as from Otterbox or Hard Candy.
  • Get a holster (for smartphones) to keep it secure on your belt rather than taking its chances in your pocket (less pocket lint to clean off too) or purse.
  • Avoid extreme temperatures (outside of the 32-95 F range).
  • Buy an insurance plan (or at least consider it).
  • Keep a spare on hand (might be more realistic to consider with tablets that work with wi-fi as opposed to smartphones with a mobile data plan, but my Blackberry example above is a good illustration).
  • Back up your data (or let Dropbox/Google Drive/OneDrive do it for you) or as the saying goes, you'll be sorry...
  • For submerged devices, power them down immediately (if applicable) to protect against a short circuit, then open any slots or access points (such as a SIM card receptacle) and try to shake out the water (you can try burying the device in rice to draw out the moisture but that technique has mixed results). Wait a few days then try powering up.
  • Consider seeking local repair shops/refurbished devices as a cheaper alternative to the often more expensive manufacturer repair/replacement fees.

2. Theft

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

One of my kids had their iPad stolen from our vehicle while parked in a Boston garage earlier this year (perhaps by the circus gentleman above; certainly I referred to the perpetrator as a clown numerous times in the sweaty-fisted frustrating aftermath).

This incident occurred partly due to the clown's greed and partly due to a misunderstanding on our part over how the car lock engaged (someone assumed pressing the lock button on the remote would engage the locks while the door was closing since that's how my - I mean, his - car worked).

Someone who would steal a child's iPad is a bigger creep than anything skulking around on Halloween night, but like many disasters, we turned it into an object lesson on how to avoid a repeat occurrence. It boiled down to the following:

  • Record all details about your mobile device such as serial numbers under "Settings" then "About" and store these separately for future reference.
  • Don't take it if you don't need it (no one really needs to bring an iPad for a 5 minute ride to the dentist's office, do they? Seriously?)
  • If you take it, keep it on you (especially important during travel).
  • If you can't keep it on you, hide it.
  • Wherever you hide it, make sure it's secure (and you understand how the locks work...)
  • Use security controls such as passwords, biometrics, and encryption to restrict access to the device if it falls into the wrong hands. Best-case scenario, they wipe the device and sell it to a pawn shop. Worst-case scenario? It's hard to even envision how bad it could be, but I'm sure it'll be very bad indeed in this era of data breaches, leaked photos and ransom demands.
  • As with damage, make sure you have backups of your data.
  • Report any thefts to your police department and wireless carrier, no matter how unlikely it is they can assist. If it turns up the police may still be able to get it back to you.
  • Use a location service like "Find my iPhone" to track the device if possible - but if you get a lead on where it is, contact the authorities - do not attempt to track down and confront the thief yourself (although I must admit I myself grumbled John Travolta's famous line from "Pulp Fiction" that "it'd been worth him doing it just so I could've caught him doing it" a few times...)

3. Battery issues

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

They say "write about what you know," which is why I have written my share of articles focusing on battery problems with mobile devices. Various problems can drain your battery like the creature of the night depicted above - and drain your patience as well as sanity.

Many battery problems can be boiled down into 3 categories: excessive resource consumption by an app, excessive resource consumption by a service, or a weak/defective battery. With that in mind I recommend the following if your mobile device just isn't able to make it through the day without a blood - I mean, energy - transfusion:

  • Turn off/uninstall unnecessary applications.
  • Review running tasks on your device to see what's active (for iOS double-click the Home button to access the Task Bar/for Android press the dedicated multitasking button or hold/double-tap the home button to open this screen) and kill anything that doesn't need to be there.
  • Turn off fancy backgrounds (the worst offenders are the dynamic ones which change or update based on external information such as news feeds).
  • Lower screen brightness/set display timeouts for a shorter interval/turn off vibration (I personally dislike vibration since I generally assume I've got a bee on me and I also get "ghost vibrations" from time to time thanks to carrying a pager/smartphone for almost 20 years).
  • Temporarily remove/disable necessary applications to see if they are the cause of the issue, then read them and research battery tips for that particular application.
  • Use a battery-conserving program like JuiceDefender or Battery Doctor to optimize mobile operations with more efficient power consumption (TechRepublic's Jack Wallen also provides some tips on using the Battery saver option for Android devices).
  • Use a battery-analysis program like Normal (iOs), OS Monitor (Android) or the default Android options under Settings, then Battery to view application resource consumption and make adjustments as necessary.
  • Use a RAM-conserving program like CleanMaster to stop unwanted apps from hogging memory on your device.
  • Change your network settings to reduce unnecessary usage; turn off GPS, location settings, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth when not in use, for instance, or adjust your email push/pull settings to utilize a less frequent synchronization schedule.
  • Try using a spare battery to see if the problem goes away; if so your original battery may be malfunctioning.

4. Malware

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Image: Wikimedia Commons/Rugby471

I'll admit that I've seen fewer instances of mobile-device based malware than I have on desktop/laptop computers (cough, Windows, cough). Actually, I've seen zero instances, but that's probably because my users and I practice good mobile techniques. An interesting report on securelist.com (recommended reading) shows a steady spike in malware applications since early 2012 through the end of 2013... and Android has been a major target with banking Trojans topping the list of malware infestations.

Here's what I recommend to defend against malware on your mobile devices:

  • Keep the OS patched with the latest software versions.
  • Only install applications from trusted providers such as iTunes or Google Play - but keep in mind it's still possible to pick up malware even there. According to PC World, last year over 42,000 Google Play apps "contained spyware and information stealing Trojan programs." Google is trying its best to remove these but it's the usual game of whack-a-mole that we see with spam, viruses, and other crud. iTunes seems to be in better shape, but again there's no guarantee that the new app that went up this morning might not contain an unpleasant stowaway.
  • If you're a system administrator in charge of other mobile devices, consider an enterprise app store for your users so they can install the apps they need from a known secure location.
  • Research any app before installing it to look for possible problems. If the app has been accused of containing malware or security risks this should become immediately apparent in the search results and you should therefore steer clear.
  • I'm not going to advise you not to jailbreak your device (though I will state it may void your warranty), but I must caution you that this can potentially remove security settings the vendor put in place for a reason, rendering your device more susceptible to compromise.
  • Avoid charging your device in public locations since this can potentially pose a malware risk (a company named ChargeDefense offers a product called "Juice-Jack Defender" - not to be confused with the afore-mentioned JuiceDefender - to combat this).
  • Watch out for suspicious emails or text messages, especially from strangers (never reply or open attachments).
  • Use mobile security policies in a corporate environment such as to lock down applications or restrict access to unwanted functions.
  • Use anti-malware software on your device. Preston Gralla of Computerworld.com has presented a good analysis of the possibilities for iOS and Android (be leery of free apps from unknown sources, of course - some of the most malignant malware has come in the form of "anti-malware" programs!)

5. Social Media

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

This may seem like an odd one, but it speaks to more of a sociological risk than a technical one. How does social media harm your mobile device? Well, it doesn't per se, but if misused or overdone it can harm you.

It's great to have a presence on social media. For those of us writers, we use it to promote our work, for those of us IT guys we use it to provide useful tips or interesting links, and for those of us with widespread families we use it to keep in touch and share details on what our families are up to.

However, social media can be a threat just like the others listed here, since what you post might well come back to haunt you in spades - and having a mobile device on you at all times means you can post all kinds of stuff that will remain out there permanently. Hint: that witty sentiment about an ex which seemed so meaningful at 12:30 am Saturday after a few sips of bourbon might not be so impressive eight hours later.

We're all aware of the silly social media flubs that have landed people in hot water, however: the guy who called in sick then posted a picture of himself at the baseball game, having forgotten his boss was one of his Facebook friends. The girl who posted pictures of herself chugging a bottle of vodka, then applied for a formal corporate position and was rejected. The network technician who accepted a job with a famous vendor then tweeted denigrating remarks about said vendor (who then pulled the plug on said job). The list goes on and on, clearly demonstrating that having instant access to large amounts of people to share thoughts or details you might regret can be like walking around with a loaded and cocked gun in your pocket.

Even worse, misused social media can be more than just embarrassing: it can lead to bigger ordeals. Tweeting company secrets - which causes your employer massive financial damage. Posting Facebook photos of your beautiful vacation spot - which then alerts thieves to come see what valuables you might have at home. Making foolish "jokes" intended to be harmless but which blow up into a major faux pas (the actor Jason Biggs found himself in just this situation when he publicly tweeted: "Anyone wanna buy my Malaysian Airlines frequent flier miles?" after a Malaysian Airlines flight was shot down over the Ukraine last July). Had Biggs made the remark to one person who became offended he could have quickly apologized and taken it back with minor impact. Instead, he made it to well over 400,000 followers. To his credit, he apologized and for the record I believe he meant no harm, but it goes to show that every public word should be scrutinized before release. Like any tool, social media should be used carefully and not with reckless abandon.

Conclusion

Many of these tips are based on common sense and others might require further research to get the specific steps involved, but hopefully this advice can serve as a silver bullet against the creatures prowling after dark (and during the daytime too, unfortunately). To paraphrase Mr. Claus, Happy Halloween to all, and to all a good night!

About Scott Matteson

Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.

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