How-To Geek

What Happens to Missing Smartphones? Symantec Dishes the Dirt

What exactly happens to smartphones separated from their owners? To find out, Symantec “lost” 50 smart phones around New York City and remotely tracked them. Read on to see what happened to the phones.

Fifty phones were loaded with fake personal and corporate information, then left in public locations around New York City. Using remote software, Symantec researchers then tracked what exactly happened to the phones after they were released into the wild. Here are some of the stats from their white paper:

72% of the people who found a smartphone looked at the photos on the phone

43% opened banking/financial applications on the phone

57% looked at a list of saved logins/passwords

50% of the phones were returned

It’s safe to assume that someone who finds a phone will turn the phone on (whether they intend to return it or not) if for no other reason than to access the phone book to attempt to call the owner. What’s unsettling about their findings is that the finders, even among the benevolent ones that attempted to return the phones, combed through personal data on the phone accessing everything from photos to passwords to corporate data.

So what do the study authors recommend? While most of their recommendations are geared towards corporate users, it’s still wise to heed their suggestion to use a lock screen and have some sort of system in place (in advance!) for dealing with a lost phone (such as installing remote wipe software Android Lost or learning how to use the iPhone’s Remote Wipe feature). Hit up the link below to read the entire study.

The Symantec Smartphone Honey Stick Project


Jason Fitzpatrick is a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don't have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he's interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 03/14/12

Comments (17)

  1. Kevalin

    Gosh, we humans are some creepy suckers…

  2. dragonbite

    So maybe the phones should be set up to provide owner information (like an “if found, call this number” with your home, friend or spoiuse’s number with no identifying information), and the rest is locked away. Maybe optionally include a picture of the owner (so the finder can see if you are still nearby?)

    Make it easy for people to do the right thing (return it), and make it harder for them to go poking around inside.

  3. anthonywerner

    I found a smart phone laying in the street, and since I don’t have one myself, I did have to poke a bit to figure out how to reach the owner. True, I didn’t get into apps, but snooping around is a necessary part of returning the device. It is disappointing that only 50 percent are returned.

  4. gesti

    Have an ICE number in your phone book!
    ICE stands for In Case of Emergency, this number is a big help for emergency units if you have an accident and this can also help others to return your phone if you loose it.

  5. Ludite

    Geez hope I never lose my pay-phone…

  6. Weeth oug

    I know this is about phones but thought i would share this. I know a guy who fixes other people’s laptops and desktops for them and I have personally witnessed him sniffing around the files like photo’s and video’s on the computers he was fixing and I would say don’t think for a minute that when you put a gadget into a shop to be fixed that the employees don’t have a sniff around your files. I think it is human nature to be curious and look inside and around something that you may have found.

  7. William Knight

    Hey a return of 50% of them in New City is fantastic, any place else and not so great

  8. gogo

    Wait did they get the phones back?

  9. cq

    dragonbite, Great idea for an app! Make the free version with advertizement and I’ll use it.

  10. Matthew

    Lists your contact information on the lock screen.

  11. delirium

    I don’t trust these statistics. If this paper was issued by an independent source I would pay attention. But Symantec is an interested party and tries to sell its products. Smartphones are their next big market.

  12. Jasper

    @ CQ. Lookout already has a free version app to track your lost phone, wipe data and render it useless , all from your computer You may not get your phone back but at least it diables it so nobody else can.

  13. LadyFitzgerald

    Even if a cell phone has been damaged or locked so it can’t be used, there is a market for them for spare parts. Picture a chop shop for cell phones.

  14. servant74

    An old cell I had already had a ‘message’ on the screen where I put ‘if found call xxx-yyy-zzzz reward if found’, even with the keyboard locked. I think we have gone backwards related to security over time.

  15. Enthusiast

    Thinking about putting up a log-in picture on my phone with just such a message, but then if I have lost my phone, I am wondering how the finder would get in touch with me. I will end up putting a friend’s number on the screen after getting their permission.

  16. grbeaufort

    I always look through the information on a lost phone to see if I can figure out who it belongs to. DUH!

  17. Esat

    Hey, the statistics are wrong, they lie…

    Why didn’t anybody notice that 57% or 43% of 50 phones doesn’t make an integer?

    Poor Symantec…

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