My Cell Phone, My Self

It holds everything-pictures, phone numbers, secrets - but what happens when someone else gets hold of it?

February 24, 2005|By Abigail Tucker and Stephen Kiehl | Abigail Tucker and Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Gabe Ferguson, a Johns Hopkins sophomore, has stored on his cell phone a video clip of his buddies performing a drunken jig and cute snapshots of his girlfriend.

Her phone is even more revealing, with transcripts from conversations with friends. And for months last semester, Stephanie Carr said, her palmOne Treo carried detailed notes from a recent campus lecture by sex therapist Dr. Ruth.

More than just contact numbers, your cell phone holds "your pictures, your life, your schedule, and you can download important documents" onto it, she said. If that information fell into enemy hands, "it would be pretty embarrassing."

Just ask Paris Hilton. The heiress' cell phone was likely hacked into recently, and choicer bits from her life surfaced on the Web over the weekend, including her address book, with numbers for celebrities like Eminem and Christina Aguilera, excerpts from snarky online exchanges and -- if some Web sites are to be believed -- topless photographs of herself.

Her life is suddenly not so simple. But forget Paris. Storing intimate information in increasingly "smart" cell phones is becoming more common than jotting it down on paper, and many users constantly tap into their cell phones or personal digital assistants for phone numbers, e-mails, appointments and even credit card numbers. It's all so convenient -- until the device is lost, stolen or hacked.

Maytal Saltiel, 19, a Hopkins sophomore, thinks her cell phone fell out of her bag on Friday as she ran around campus. Now she's worried that her personal data is circulating ... somewhere.

"The fact that this is me, and somebody has it, and I don't know who that is, is disconcerting," she said.

Stephanie Leikach, a Baltimore paralegal, felt similarly invaded when she lost her phone. "I was like, God, somebody's going to go through it," she said.

Some corporations have already recognized the insidious potential of mislaid employee cell phones. If Don Shifflett, information technology director at the Baltimore law firm Ober Kaler, ever loses his BlackBerry and the "sensitive" company information stored within, he is obligated to notify the company, which has a central system in place to wipe clean the memory.

But technology to protect consumers lags behind corporate safety measures, said Bob Egner, vice president of global marketing for Pointsec, a mobile device security firm. Often linked to the Internet, cell phones and PDAs can store an incredible quantity and variety of information -- the equivalent of 720,000 e-mails, according to Pointsec. Taking the form of photo albums and conversational logs, this memory summarizes users' lives, ranging from the quotidian details -- like what time we get up in the morning, courtesy of the alarm clock feature -- to information even more vital than Lindsay Lohan's e-mail address.

A survey last year by Baltimore-based Bluefire Security Technologies, a mobile-security software maker, found that 38 percent of people who used mobile hand-held devices stored credit-card numbers on them, while other users commonly kept files of computer networks and bank account passwords.

It gets juicier: 17 percent of people saved love notes on their cells, the study found.

"These devices are really becoming memory extensions," said Mark Komisky, CEO of Bluefire.

They're almost a digital soul.

That's why "my heart goes out to Paris Hilton," said Joel Johnson, editor of the technology Weblog Gizmodo.

Of course, empathy did not prevent him from downloading semi-nude photos of the bombshell "as quickly as possible."

"Don't leave anything on your cell phone that you don't want broadcast to the world," he warned.

Hilton's cell phone, the high-tech Sidekick available only through T-Mobile, includes a relatively rare feature: a server with Internet storage, which might have enabled a hacker to access her information online.

The particulars are sketchy at this point, and T-Mobile is not discussing the case. The tech-savvy suggest several scenarios: either somebody had physical access to Hilton's Sidekick, finagled her password or raided the server directly.

Actually, Johnson said, this last -- and, in his mind, most likely -- scenario doesn't threaten the average user, because most phones aren't backed up online.

Still, "the things that happened to Paris could happen to everybody if your cell phone gets stolen" or lost, Johnson said.

And it well might. Although cell phones are in some ways as sophisticated as computers, people don't necessarily treat them with the same reverence, Komisky said.

Plus, they're tinier than Hilton's teacup Chihuahua and easy to misplace.

For some cell users, this loss would be more inconvenient than personally devastating. Not everyone's address book is as fascinating as Hilton's.

"All they'd get is my mom's cell phone number and the ability to surf the Web very slowly," said William Wysocki of Mount Vernon.

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