Smartphones Take on Laptops in Security

We compare how smartphones and laptops -- the most common small-business tools -- handle everyday security hazards.
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) -- You know the old saying: "If it moves, it's a security risk." OK, it's a new saying I made up just now. But in the case of laptop computers and


, it's true.

Below, we compare how these popular devices handle the most common security hazards.

Physical theft:

Clearly, laptops and


are easy to steal. Some 600,000 laptop computers are lost or stolen

just from airports alone

every year, according to the

Ponemon Institute

. In fact, the

Safeware Insurance Agency

last month introduced an insurance plan specifically for the


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"The chances of recovering either one once it's stolen or lost are very low, especially for phones because they can be turned into someone else's device just by inserting a new SIM (subscriber identity module) card," says Dennis Fisher, an editor at the IT security news site


According to Fisher, encryption is the best way to protect data on


and laptops in case of loss or theft.


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offer plenty of encryption options for mobile PCs.

There are fewer options for smartphones, but they are out there.

GuardianEdge Technologies

, for example, offers encryption software for iPhones,



smartphones and devices that use


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Windows Mobile.

To prevent theft, most laptop computers come equipped with Tic Tac-shaped holes called Kensington Slots, which are meant to work with lock-and-cable systems from

Kensington Computer Products Group

, a subsidiary of

ACCO Brands


. Basic locks sell for $24.99, but $54.99 will get you a lock that emits an alarm if someone cuts its cable. Phones don't come with Kensington Slots, and neither do the pants pockets where most men store them.

Advantage: Laptops. When's the last time you accidentally dropped a laptop in the toilet?


Compared with smartphones, laptop PCs are far more prone to so-called malware, the blanket term for viruses, worms, spyware, and any other purposefully bad software that gains access to a device. The jerks who create malware have historically targeted Microsoft's Windows and Office software, so smartphones that run mobile versions of Office and Internet Explorer are susceptible to malware. But, in general, phone viruses aren't yet a widespread problem.

Unlike PCs, in which nobody limits the applications consumers stick on their hard drives, phone companies control the software on devices that use their networks, says Paul Roberts, an analyst with the technology research firm

451 Group

. "There are choke and control points that can be used to limit propagation," he says.

Still, there have been cases in which phone users have received text messages that contain links that lead to trouble. Just as it's not a good idea to open an e-mail attachment from an unknown sender, it's not a good idea to click on a link in a mysterious text message.

Advantage: For now, smartphones.

Wireless hackers

: While theft of the device itself is the fastest way to steal data, it's almost equally easy to access mobile phone information through wireless and Internet networks and through Bluetooth connections.

"All of these have been shown to be susceptible to any number of man-in-the-middle or sniffing attacks, which usually are undetected by the victim," Fisher says. "Most people use unencrypted connections, which makes these attacks child's play for mildly capable attackers."

Advantage: It's a wash. Use encryption software.

-- Reported by Carmen Nobel in Boston


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