Protecting one’s belongings goes back to the days of a caveman beating another caveman on the head with a stick for trying to take the first caveman’s supper. It’s in our nature to want to protect what we have, and, unfortunately, it’s also in some people’s nature to want what others have.

While we might not all have government level top-secret files on our mobile devices, I’m willing to bet that most of you would rather not have a stranger going through your personal files or emails just the same.

So, how protected are you if one of your mobile devices is lost or stolen?

Are you thinking: “I’m not worried, you need a password to unlock my device”?

Sorry to smash your dream world into a thousand pieces, but if I have physical access to your device, there’s no password you can set that will stop me from gaining access to your files. Your files just exist as viewable data.

The only way to protect your files on mobile devices is to encrypt your data. Encrypting your data involves applying a lot of weird and wonderful math algorithms to your data, which turns it into files that appear to be random gibberish.

Only the correct password will rearrange the data back into its original readable form. Even with physical access to the machine, I would not be able to access your files without the correct password.

You can turn on encryption on most smartphones and tablets in the options or settings window. Laptops and external media such as hard drives can be encrypted using a free program such as Truecrypt, which will work on Windows, Mac, and Linux computers.

You should always read the documentation in full for any encryption program you’re going to use, as well as make a backup of the data on your devices before you try and encrypt them. If you do it wrong, you will lose data. You have been warned!

Locking down your data is one thing, but what if you could let the police know the location of the device, and even provide them with a photograph of the person who stole it?

A free and open-source program called Prey can help with that. Prey currently works on Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, and iOS and is available from Prey is free to use on up to three devices, and they also have plans you can purchase that offer more features, and allow more devices.

However, even with just the free version, you still have access to a number of features that can help you in the event of your mobile device being stolen. These features include being able to locate the device through GPS or Wi-Fi Geolocation, take pictures using the built-in webcam, grab a desktop screenshot, or wipe your saved passwords. All of these can easily be configured and utilized through the web based control panel.

While you might want to go caveman-style and beat your thief over the head with a stick—don’t. If your device was stolen, you should always give the data generated by Prey to the police and let them handle it. Never try and track down a stolen device by yourself.

With just a little bit of advanced preparation, you can protect your data, and maybe even avoid having to drop another $500 to replace a lost or stolen device.

This article first appeared in Memorial University’s student newspaper: The Muse

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