How to secure an Android device

Whether you paid a small fortune for the hottest Android smartphone or Google Android tablet, it's a good bet that the data stored on your mobile is at least as valuable as the hardware itself. If your phone or tablet is ever lost or stolen, you'll either be glad you took precautions to protect all your content, or you'll sorely wish you had. In this article, we'll walk you through setting up Android's built-in security tools and suggest a few third-party extras that can add valuable safeguards for your personal information.

Secure Android: Lock out prying eyes

Unlike most other mobile handsets, which use alphanumeric passcodes to prevent interlopers from messing with your data, Android introduces a novel system called an unlock pattern. Rather than punch in a code on a keypad, you swipe your fingertip across the screen in a pre-specified pattern, connecting a series of dots along the way. If the pattern you swipe matches the pattern that's been previously entered into the device's memory, the operating system unlocks. If not, try again.

Like a passcode, the security of an unlock pattern is directly related to the number of data points it contains. Just as a six-digit code is likely to be safer than a four-digit one, a pattern connecting six dots will be harder to break than one with only four dots. (And four is the minimum number for any Android unlock pattern.)

To set an unlock pattern, open the Settings menu and tap Location & security. If you haven't set one before, you'll see Set unlock pattern listed under Screen unlock pattern. If there's already an unlock pattern in place, it'll say Change unlock pattern. In either case, tap that option to get to the Draw an unlock pattern screen. (If you already have a pattern entered, you'll need to confirm it before creating a new one.)

You can begin drawing your new unlock pattern by touching your finger on any dot on the screen, then swiping over nearby dots, without lifting your finger off the surface, to connect them in any pattern you choose. Remember, that more complex patterns will be more secure than simple ones, so the more dots you connect, the better. If you just connect four dots in a simple L shape, for example, the first nefarious character to happen upon your device will be pretty sure to get into it.

Unfortunately, convenience and security can sometimes be mutually exclusive, and this is definitely one of those cases. If you really want to keep your stuff safe, don't wimp out on the unlock pattern. On the other hand, don't create a pattern so complicated you can never get it right yourself.

Secure Android: Find Your Phone

Whether you've let it slip it between the sofa cushions, left it on a restaurant table or had it stolen out of your car, a missing mobile can be hard to recover. Fortunately, Android's built-in GPS functions can make it easy to find a device that's gone AWOL, as long as you're running the right software. The Android Market offers several good apps for tracking down a missing handset.

One of the simplest location trackers for Android is called Where's My Droid (free from the Android Market, or with extra features in return for a donation). This simple GPS-driven app lets you create a secret 'attention word' or passphrase that you can send to your device as a text message. When received, this will trigger a 'find me' mode.

After your phone goes missing, you'll have two options. If you think it's nearby, you can text your standard attention word to trigger a loud ring that, unlike simply dialling your own number, will always be audible, even if you left your ringtone set to silent.

Alternatively, text your GPS 'attention word' and the device will send back a message stating its exact latitude and longitude, so you can make your way there and pick it up.

While an app like this won't do ­anything to protect your data from theft, it does make it less likely that a mislaid mobile will disappear forever.

Secure Android: Advanced Security

For more robust security options coupled with the ability to track down your device, two apps stand out. McAfee WaveSecure ($19.90 per year) and Mobile Defense both give you the ability to locate your phone from a secure website, so you can not only get the GPS coordinates of your device but see it on a map. Again, these services let you set off an alarm that will make the device easy to find if you're in earshot.

If your Android phone is truly lost, Wave­Secure and Mobile Defense both offer additional tools to help you get it back. With each, you can remotely lock or unlock your device to either prevent thieves from getting into the operating system or to enable a good Samaritan to get in if so desired.

More importantly, you can use these apps to remotely back up and then wipe all your personal data from the device if nobody turns it in – so you can not only get your latest data back, but also protect it from falling into the wrong hands.

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Security Advisor