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Tech tips: Keep your PDA data safe

PC World
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(IDG) -- Ever felt that pang of panic when you can't find your PDA? Even if you can't keep your personal digital assistant by your side at all times, you can still protect your portable data from prying eyes.

Besides built-in password protection that comes with PDAs that run on the Palm OS or the Windows-based Pocket PC platform, a host of downloadable applications can further protect and encrypt the personal and professional data on your PDA. And if that's not enough, you can even buy PDA insurance.

Still, your best bet for protecting your data is to synchronize your handheld regularly with your PC. As for the device itself, just don't let it out of your sight.

Lost without it

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The biggest security threat to a personal digital assistant is loss," says Ken Dulaney, vice president at industry analyst firm, Gartner. "Unfortunately, the only way to really secure a PDA is the lock it into a vault."

Janine Reathi of the San Francisco International Airport Lost and Found knows firsthand how many people lose PDAs while traveling.

"As they've become more popular, we see more and more Palm-type devices here," Reathi says. "People are frantic to get them back; their lives are in it."

While Dulaney thinks some of the password protection tools "work well enough," he also says when someone finds a PDA, they usually don't care what's on it. But, recalling a pharmaceutical salesperson who lost a PDA containing a confidential list of people involved in a clinical drug trial, Dulaney warns of the risk of losing or revealing important data on your PDA.

Basic advice for the PC still applies: Back up your data regularly and often. With PDAs, that means synchronizing, Dulaney says.

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Password, please

Palm OS-based devices and Pocket PCs both come with a password protection option. Turning it on not only protects your data, but it might discourage would-be thieves from making off with your organizer. Of course, a knowledgeable thief could do a hard reset and start over again.

The Palm security application--found on the main menu of a Palm or Handspring Visor--lets you mark records such as addresses, calendar entries, or memos as private and then hides them. You can also assign a password to your device that unlocks and shows hidden records. Another password command lets you lock your device so that someone must enter the password to get to any application or data.

Pocket PCs offer a similar power-on password that locks the device until you enter your chosen password. Turning this on requires some navigation. Go to the Settings command, then the Personal tab, and select Password. Enter a password and check 'require password when device is turned on.'

Download and secure

Downloadable third-party applications can extend and enhance the password protection built into your Palm-based device. Most cost between free and $20 and are available from PDA portals such as Handango and PalmGear HQ. One or both of those sites include this selection of utilities:

  • A new security tool for the Palm platform, PDABomb, locks your PDA more completely than built-in tools. Developed by Asynchrony and available at an introductory price of $19.95, PDABomb enhances password protection by disabling all forms of data transfer--even the infrared and HotSync ports--until the correct password is supplied.

  • A $9.95 alternative, OnlyMe, locks a Palm-based device whenever it's turned off. Similar to the built-in password feature, OnlyMe requires you to enter a password to access any of your PDA data. But even with password protection on, OnlyMe returns you exactly to your previous state, so a quick power off won't require you to drill back into the application or file that you were working on.

  • For more customized security, TealLock replaces the Palm security application with one that offers personal options. The $16.95 TealLock includes shortcut-stroke activation; custom locking for screen, text, and images; and optional automatic locking. You can also set it to hide private records immediately when you turn off the device, or after a specified period of time.

  • And if you only trust your own hand, try JotLoc, a handwriting recognition password protection tool available for $11.95.

Downloadable password-keepers

Several downloadable Palm applications store your many passwords in one conveniently portable tool.

Gatekeeper, PalmPassword, Password Store MasterKey Store, and 4Tnox all help you collect, store, and manage your many log-ins, including that of your Palm, often behind one master password. Web Confidential, another password manager, is priced at $20 and lets you encrypt your password files. All of those are available from Handango.

Pocket PC users also have a selection of third-party password tools, such as PocketPassword and Gatekeeper. You can store personal information such as credit card numbers and contact information in Virtual Wallet, a $19.95 Pocket PC application designed for both personal and corporate use.

Besides password protection, tools are available to store and protect various important numbers, such as bank accounts, PINs, credit cards, and safe combinations. Some, like the $14.95 SAM (security account management), also encrypt your accounts and personal numbers.

While Gartner's Dulaney finds these personal data management tools useful, he also thinks they point to a bigger problem. Many people put valuable data into their PDA and leave it accessible to anyone who turns it on.

Many corporate users put enterprise access codes right on the PDA without the company even realizing it, Dulaney says. "If a company is really serious about security, it needs to own and completely manage PDAs," he says.

For strict security: ecryption

If passwords alone won't satisfy your security needs, several tools offer application and data encryption on a Palm or Pocket PC. But the more encryption you want, the more you'll need to spend on third-party downloads. Also, as Dulaney points out, "Encryption takes a lot of horsepower, which many of these devices don't have."

Pocket PCs have more encryption options thanks to their faster processors, but many of the tools are designed for enterprise users. A few downloadable encryption tools include PocketLock, which protects and encrypts Pocket PC files for $19.95, and Sentry 2020, which offers transparent data encryption for $50.

Despite Palms' limited processing power, a few downloadable low-level encryption tools are available for them. For $7, MemoSafe replaces the Palm memo applications with an encrypted one. The $19.95 MaxSecret stores private information on a Palm-based device using PGP encryption. On the higher end, JAWZDataGator has a couple application-independent data encryption tools for a Palm for $39.95 (standard) and $49.95 (professional).

Backup and insurance options

Losing a PDA is not as hard as you might think, so taking some precautions to make sure an honest person can return it to you isn't a bad plan. A good initial tip for both Palm and Pocket PC owners is to enter your contact information in the owner fields, found in Preferences on a Palm and under the Personal tab on a Pocket PC.

Reathi of San Francisco Airport's Lost and Found says making contact information available on a PDA makes it much easier to return it when lost.

"Smart PDA owners have their contact information appear when you turn the device on, or they have a business card in the case," Reathi says.

Pocket PC has a nice feature that lets you display your owner information when the device is turned on, even if you have activated password protection. Although Palm owner information is stored in Preferences, if you turn on the password lock-out feature, a Palm will display owner information along with a password request when activated. You can also put a label or business card on your device; that way even PDA-shy folks can return your device.

Every time you synchronize your PDA, the data gets backed up to your PC. However, several applications offer supplemental backup to protect your data even more securely.

BackUpBuddy, BackupPro, and JackBack are software backup tools for backing up all applications and data on a Palm-based device. But only the $29.95 BackUpBuddy works with a standard Palm. The other two require a Palm-based device with removable Flash memory, such as the Handspring Visor with Flash Module, a Sony Clie with Memory Stick, and a TRGPro Palm device with CompactFlash.

Like the Visor, TRGPro, and Clie, all Pocket PCs come with a removable memory slot--either CompactFlash or, in the case of Casio, Multimedia Cards. You can use this expandability to add memory and features and to back up your PDA when you're not near a PC.

But no matter how much you back up, encrypt, and password-protect your PDA, losing or breaking it can leave you in a rut. If your PDA is absolutely vital, you can buy insurance for it at PalmsLostorStolen.com.

For $3.99 to $9.99 monthly (depending on the price of your handheld), you can insure your PDA against theft, loss, or breakage. Signal provides the insurance policy offered at the site. While most homeowner's insurance covers things like PDAs, the deductible can be higher than the price of the PDA, suggests PalmsLostorStolen.com. The Signal policy's deductible is $35. While the policy doesn't explicitly cover software, the service includes some backup software: BackUpBuddy for Palm and PocketLock for Pocket PC.

Bigger threats loom

Although losing your PDA may be its biggest security risk, Gartner's Dulaney suggests larger wireless threats are on the horizon.

"Hackers could infect your system or network with software that uses the PDA as a Trojan horse to get into the enterprise," Dulaney says.

While the virus threat is still relatively new to the PDA, antivirus vendors such as Network Associates (McAfee Division) and Computer Associates have released downloadable software for the Palm to prevent it from bringing viruses to your PC. But most antivirus protection stops at wireless PDAs.

"Because infrared has so little security when someone beams you their business card, there's no way to know what you're getting," Dulaney says. "Bluetooth [another short-range wireless data exchange protocol] has access permission security, but once you permit access, it's a hacker's delight."

And overall, wireless devices are vulnerable because they're immediately connected, he adds.

"We're going to have to protect these devices in a different way," Dulaney says. "PDAs are exposed to a lot of things your desktop is not."



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