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Mobile Security: Protecting Your Mobile Devices and Privacy

Most of us use mobile devices constantly to check our email, communicate with friends and family, and stay connected through social media. The use of these devices is sure to increase and expand.

Unfortunately, this also means online safety issues will become more worrisome. Users will continue to face new risks of viruses and the theft of personal information.

Read on for information about how to protect yourself when using your smartphone, tablet, or other mobile device. Also, learn which laws protect your digital privacy.

Mobile Phones Create New Privacy Risks

In a sense, people carry their lives on their mobile devices. From business to dating, you likely conduct personal affairs on the go. You may even link your credit card or bank account for mobile pay purchases.

Consider how a thief or hacker could benefit from having this tool at their fingertips. Device theft could have the same consequences as traditional identity and credit card theft.

Mobile devices are susceptible to many of the attacks and vulnerabilities that affect PCs. Scammers may send mobile users phishing emails to get them to download harmful software or give out personal information unwittingly. Smartphone users can also be victims of "vishing" (voicemail phishing) and "smishing" (SMS/text message phishing). Some scammers develop malicious apps that download unwanted software to the user's device or allow access to user information.

Safety Tips: How To Secure Your Mobile Devices

Buying a particular technology brand can't guarantee you'll automatically have the safest phone or laptop. Researching a device's security features before buying it is a good idea. But many privacy precautions ultimately depend on what you do as a user.

The steps to protect yourself when using a mobile device are mainly common sense. These tips are similar to securing a traditional desktop computer or avoiding identity theft. Yet, a mobile device may encounter a few unique security threats.

Use Antivirus and Firewall Software

Download and keep up-to-date antivirus and firewall software made for your operating system (usually Android, iOS, or Windows Phone). You can search app providers such as Google's Play Store to find this software. It's also a good idea to read user and professional reviews to see if the software is effective.

Enable Encryption and Lock Your Device

Many people fail to take the basic precaution of locking their devices. Requiring a password or biometric data can help deter thieves. Choose a long, unique passcode or password.

Encrypting your mobile device will provide another barrier to unwanted intrusion.

Be Wary of Fake Apps

Limit app downloads to trusted sites such as the Google Play Store, Amazon's Appstore, and Apple's iTunes. These sites have policies to reduce the number of fake or harmful apps. Be particularly wary of links to apps sent by email or text message.

Consider Your Connection's Security

You may connect to public Wi-Fi hotspots when you're on the go. Shared Wi-Fi networks have unreliable cybersecurity protection. If your Wi-Fi connection has low security, your device has a higher risk of malware and unauthorized access to your private information.

Don't send personal information from public networks, such as a café or public library. Depending on how often you take your device out of your home, you may want to avoid using your device's auto-login feature. This feature allows automatic login to websites and email. It could give a thief easy access to your accounts.

Consider using a virtual private network (VPN) to give your device an extra layer of security. VPNs encrypt the data your device sends and receives with the website or app you use. The encryption shields your sensitive information from hackers.

Install Tracking and Remote Deletion Software

Installing software to find your phone's location can help if it ever becomes lost or stolen. Some device companies are improving tracking technology within the products by default. For example, Apple users can check the Find My app to see where their devices are.

Software that allows you to lock or delete data from your phone remotely can also help protect your personal information. You could remove certain information before thieves use it against you.

Store Your Devices Safely

Mobile devices are small, making them easy to misplace or steal. An open pocket or tote bag can raise the risk of pickpocketing or dropping the device.

Always keep your devices close — whether you're traveling, enjoying a night out, or commuting on public transit. Keeping your phone in a zipped-up bag or interior pocket, such as on your jacket, can reduce the risk.

Never Give Your Device to a Stranger

This tip may seem obvious, but certain situations lead people to believe that handing over their phone will be safe. For example, imagine you're on vacation in Italy. You ask a nearby stranger to take your photo at a scenic spot. As soon as you hand them your phone — unlocked with Instagram open — they start running away.

In other cases, a thief may pressure or persuade you to let them borrow or take your phone. For example, a scam could involve someone who looks distraught or panicked asking for your phone to make an emergency call. You would have a difficult choice to make about whether to trust them. Offering to make the emergency call for them is often safer.

How Consumer Laws Protect Your Device Privacy

You might already maximize your phone, tablet, and laptop security. Unfortunately, thieves and scammers find new ways to break into devices or trick owners into exposing them. Sometimes, even legitimate companies misuse consumer data collected via mobile devices.

Many consumer and data privacy laws protect your mobile device information from companies, other people, and the government. Read about some of these laws below. You can also check your state laws to understand your rights better.

CFAA: Basic Mobile Device Theft Protection

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) makes accessing someone else's electronic device a federal crime. A person or company needs your consent to use your phone, tablet, or laptop. Hacking into or stealing a mobile device to retrieve sensitive information is illegal.

COPPA: Children's Mobile Device Privacy

Young people increasingly own and use mobile devices, often independently. Between large companies and other users, the risk of theft or misuse of a child's information is high. Children may also unknowingly share others' personal information.

Since 1998, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) has required companies to meet privacy standards for users under 13. Device and mobile app makers must provide disclosures and get parental consent before collecting children's data. There are also rules for how companies can retain that data.

Many companies also add parental controls, such as content censorship, location monitoring, and screen time limits. These controls can help families protect internet safety on household mobile devices.

ECPA: Privacy From Law Enforcement and Government

Lawmakers passed the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) in 1986, which focuses on wiretapping rules. They also updated the law as technology changed in the following decades.

The Act makes it illegal for someone to intercept (by eavesdropping or recording) your communications on your mobile devices. It also creates specific rules for how and when investigators can access your digital records, such as your call history.

Consumer data privacy is still a focal point of many Fourth Amendment debates. This topic arises in discussions about how much privacy you can expect for your mobile devices if you become a suspect in a criminal investigation.

Take, for example, the US PATRIOT Act (a 2001 amendment to the ECPA) and law enforcement's activities in its wake. This Act was divisive because the federal government gave itself broad authority to surveil phones nationwide.

TCPA: Unsolicited Calls and Texts

The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) can affect your incoming mobile phone calls and messages.

It governs telemarketing practices by creating the following requirements:

  • Telemarketers need to set up accurate caller ID, so you know who is calling
  • Companies need your consent to text or call you with an automated system
  • You must have a way to opt out of marketing texts and calls

While this law focuses on spam reduction rather than privacy, it can also protect your security indirectly. Once you know the requirements for legitimate businesses, you can more easily spot scammers trying to get your information. You can also put your phone number on the National Do Not Call Registry to avoid unsolicited calls and texts.

HIPAA: Medical Privacy on Your Mobile Device

Medical privacy laws can protect your information, such as when you use a patient portal app or attend a virtual telehealth appointment. Health companies must build software meeting the technical safeguards of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

HIPAA protections began in the 1990s, back when today's advanced smartphones were a distant dream. Regardless, the law covers electronic medical records in this modern context. HIPAA protects your digital medical records.

But there are limits to HIPAA. For example, many period-tracking apps and other health monitoring programs are not subject to this law.

GDPR and Foreign Regulations

Foreign protections don't apply to U.S. consumers directly. Yet, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a comprehensive foreign law that has affected mobile devices around the world.

Technology companies with global operations often apply the same strict standards to all users. For example, you may see website prompts asking you to accept or decline cookies — part of GDPR compliance — even though you're a U.S. user.

GDPR only governs the collection and use of European Union user data. Many software programs on mobile devices gather information about the user and their activities. EU users have several rights under this law, but U.S. users don't have those same rights. But some state laws may incorporate similar privacy standards.

What To Do About Mobile Device Privacy Violations

Perhaps someone stole your phone. Or an app company may have leaked your data. However it happened, your security is now compromised. Depending on the situation, you may seek justice through a lawsuit, a report to regulatory agencies, or a police report.

Only some laws, such as CFAA, allow you to sue the offender in court. These civil lawsuits enable you to seek damages for the invasion of your privacy.

Other federal laws, like HIPAA and TCPA, don't allow you to bring an individual case. For many types of fraud and privacy violations, you can instead report the offender through a consumer complaint. Regulatory agencies like the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigate these complaints.

Get Legal Help for Security Issues

Despite taking precautions, anyone can suffer a privacy breach through their cell phone or laptop.

If you have questions about online safety and mobile devices, such as how best to protect yourself or what to do if you've been victimized, you can consult a consumer protection attorney through FindLaw.

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