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Tips and tricks to keeping your mobile safe and secure in the age of technology

Copy Editor

Published: Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Updated: Sunday, December 15, 2013 17:12

So you’ve got your new tablet, be it an Android, Microsoft Surface device or an iPad and you’re ready to rock this semester. You’ve got the best educational apps loaded (free or cheap ones, of course; you’re not rich), you’ve rented your books from the Kindle store, and you’re thinking you’ve got it all set up right.

Slow down, partner. There’s probably one thing you’ve forgotten. What about virus protection?
That’s right; the one thing a lot of people neglect for their tablets is anti-malware software. It’s a tablet, right? It doesn’t look like a desktop computer, so why would the threat be the same? Remember, a tablet computer is still a computer. It operates on all the same principles and has all the same hardware; it’s just in a more convenient package. In fact, according to ZDNet, the malware threat against tablets and smartphones is expected to exceed the threat against desktops. As sales rise, so will the threat.

And yes, you read that right - smart phones. Your Droid Incredible or iPhone 4S has hundreds of times the computing power that the now-retired space shuttle carried, and thousands of times of the computers installed aboard the Apollo moon missions. You’re carrying a supercomputer around in your pocket. You’re constantly connected to a network, over which any manner of data can be sent - good, bad or just inconvenient.

As the “Internet of things” grows, so will the threat. Fortunately, there are tools out there to help protect you and your devices from it. Most of the software reviewed today will be for Android, mostly because Android accounts for most of the tablet malware threat (about 79 percent  according to recent estimates). But that doesn’t mean the iOS threat isn’t real; just that Apple does a better job at policing its marketplace.

But enough banter. Let’s talk tech!
First up is Sophos Security. This free app does a few things but it does them very well. It’s easy to set up, making it very attractive for the less tech-savvy among us. It does regular device scans that the owner can customize, scans of downloaded files pre-installation, provides warnings of insecure system settings, and for smart phones, loss & theft and spam protection. It also has a companion app, Sophos Encryption, that allows you to encrypt your entire device. If you’re worried about your Nexus 7 being stolen or lost, you can protect all your data, including your Dropbox directory, from prying eyes with a layer of password-protected encryption. Don’t lose the password, though. Android only.

Another good piece of code is Avast Mobile Security & Antivirus, another free anti-malware suite from Avast software. It covers all the bases as well - virus scanning, anti-theft, backup, app locking, privacy advising, app management, and scheduled scans. Some of the best options will cost you, though, as there is a Premium version available. Android only.

What about a firewall? They can be your first line of defense, but too often they require knowledge beyond that of the average user. Many require “root” or “superuser” access to your device, which most people won’t be willing to do. Try it, and you run a real risk of “bricking” your device. Also, firewalls are only as effective as the knowledge level of the person setting them up, so for most users they’ll be worse than useless. However, if you’re so inclined, the Android market has a few available. DroidWall, Android Firewall and a few “non-root” versions are available for free.

Of course, software is only one line of defense. I mentioned in my first Tech Talk column that Android 4.3 offers improved security, with three device unlocking modes and multiple user accounts. Apple’s iOS isn’t completely lacking in security, but it does have some catching up to do.

Both have a passcode option that lets the user secure the device with a four-digit PIN code. The problem here is that the user gets to choose it, and we all know users tend to pick codes that are easily remembered. Despite the fact that a four-digit key with ten options per digit means 10,000 possible combinations, users overwhelmingly choose codes that either follow a pattern or are terribly predictable. If you choose this option, make sure you use a code that’s not easily guessed. Smartplanet.com has a list of the worst PIN codes of all time; go ahead and see if yours is on it. If you’ve chosen 1234, 1010, 6969 or 1397, congratulations. You’ve already lost the game.

Android 4.3 offers pattern unlocking, where the user draws a pattern over a 3x3 grid and uses that to unlock the device, and facial recognition, which is pretty cool and uses the device camera to recognize the user and unlock the device. I’m hoping Apple catches up with this. They have the know-how; they just need to do it.

The threat is out there, folks. It’s real, and you need to protect your computing hardware from it. By taking a few simple (and free) steps, you can keep your tablets and smartphones as safe as possible from malware, intrusion and other threats.

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