Lost your phone? Chances are someone is picking through your personal information

In 1995, Reader’s Digest conducted a fascinating experiment in which the magazine placed 120 wallets in 12 cities across the country, and then tracked which communities had the highest return rate of the wallets to their rightful owners. I was always proud of the fact that Seattle was the most honest cities of the bunch, with residents returning nine out of 10 wallets that they found.

Symantec just concluded a similar experiment for the modern era. The giant security firm hid 50 smartphones in five cities (New York, Washington D .C ., Los Angeles, Ottawa, Canada and the San Francisco), placing a collection of simulated corporate and personal data on the devices with no screen locks or password protections.

And what do you think happened? Well, just half of the folks who found the phones contacted the owners of the devices, and in most cases the people who found the phones ended up snooping around on them. In fact, Symantec found that 70 percent of the devices were accessed for both business and personal information. Attempts to access corporate email occurred on 45 percent of the devices, and a file on the phone titled “HR Salaries” was accessed 53 percent of the time. Access to a private photos app occurred on 72 percent of the devices.

The report notes:

“Chief among the findings is that there is a very high likelihood attempts to access both sensitive personal- and business-related information will be made if a lost and unprotected smartphone is found by a stranger . Secondarily, the owner of a lost smartphone should not assume the finder of their device will attempt to make contact  with them . Even when contact is made, the owner of the device should not assume their personal- or business-related information has not been violated.”

Now, those types of results can hardly restore your faith in humanity. But, I’d still be curious to see what happened if Symantec lost some phones in Seattle.  And, of course, smartphone owners can take steps to make sure they protect themselves in the case of a lost or stolen phone. Symantec says the results of the study show the importance of using features such as password protected screen locks.

Previously on GeekWireMobilisafe study: 39 percent of mobile devices at small businesses are ‘stale’

  • Guest

    The persons who found the phones were simply trying to find the rightful owner, something that can be done by looking through e-mail and contact information. If you don’t want your phone accessed by a stranger, lock it with a PIN and put a sticker with your e-mail address on the back. Did we really need Symantec to tell us this?

  • Anonymous

    John, one data point for you.  I lost my iphone hiking last summer, it was locked.  I left a note on the trailhead board.  A backpacker saw my note as they headed out, found the phone on day 1, carried it for 5 days, note was still on the board when they returned.  They called me when they returned.  Score one for Seattle

  • Anonymous

    Use of a lock screen is essential; I’m surprised some people still don’t do this.

    FYI, if you have lost a Windows Phone, you can find, ring, lock, or even erase your phone remotely at windowsphone.com/my

  • Tgreeen

    I’d peek, then return.  Too interested in the human condition, not to look first.