Whenever you walk out your front door with your phone, you carry with you the contents of your life. “Security” may seem like a boring topic, but your phone has all kinds of important, personal, and sensitive information on it—even if you think it doesn’t. When it’s so easy to lose your mobile device or have it stolen, you have to ask yourself: why take chances when protecting your data is so simple?
Sure, security is important for all your tech. But putting a password on your desktop is one thing, if you want to keep your kids or roommates from prying. Your phone goes with you everywhere. As a result, it’s much easier to misplace (or worse, get stolen).
Think for a moment of all the personal information you probably have on your phone: photos of your family, emails from your boss, texts from your spouse, not to mention phone numbers, addresses, and possibly even passwords. You may not think you store sensitive information on your phone, but you’d be shocked at what someone with nefarious intentions could do with simple access to your email account.
That means a moment of forgetfulness can equal long days or weeks of worry and suffering. Good device security is a top priority so we’ll talk about everything you can do to keep your stuff locked up safe and sound.
So, with that in mind, this lesson is dedicated to the many ways you can, and very much should, secure your phone or tablet.
Almost everything we talk about in this lesson will be in one place: Android’s security settings. To access them, first head into the Settings menu by either pull down the notification shade and tapping the cog icon, or jump into the app drawer and tap the “Settings” shortcut.
From there, just scroll down to the Security entry. On some devices, this name may be slightly different—Samsung names it “Lock screen and security,” for example.
Some of this stuff is pretty simple, while some requires a little more explanation. We mostly want to zero in on the stuff that will help keep your device locked tight.
Screen Locks: Patterns, PINs, Passwords, and Fingerpints
By default, you can unlock your phone with a simple swipe—but that means anyone else can, too. Changing that is first thing you can and must do to secure your phone. Yes, they’re a hassle, but they’re extremely important—and we’ll show you some ways to make them more convenient after we set them up.
To start, tap the Screen Lock option and take a look at the variety of screen locks you can employ. On most modern phones, you can even unlock devices with your fingerprint.
We’d say that out of these, the most useful to you are pattern, PIN, and fingerprint. Pattern locks seem to be the most popular, but you can use whatever works best for you. Let’s run through your options.
Pattern Locks: Clever, and Very Secure
Pattern unlocks are really interesting: instead of typing in a number or password you remember, you draw a little “connect the dots” pattern to unlock your phone.
When you first set up a pattern, it will ask if you’d like to require a pattern to start the device. It’s your call here, but we recommend requiring a pattern to start the device. Note that you won’t receive any sort of notifications or alarms after rebooting your phone until the pattern has been entered.
Then, draw a pattern on the 3×3 layout of dots to create your lock.
Whatever you do, don’t forget your pattern. Pattern unlocks have proven to be extremely hard to crack, foiling even the FBI. However, note that when you draw your pattern, you leave smudges in the shape of your pattern on the screen—so you may want to get into the habit of giving your phone a quick wipe every time you put it back in your pocket.
PIN Codes: Easy to Remember, and Decently Secure
A personal identification number—or PIN—works just as your PIN works with your ATM card, but you can choose a longer string if you’d like—the minimum length is four digits. This setting will also ask if you’d like to require a PIN to start the device.
Obviously, the longer the better. PINs are easier to crack than passwords if someone is determined, but let’s be honest: even a four-digit PIN is going to foil common snoops…unless you choose something simple, like 1111, or something easy to guess, like your birthday.
Passwords: Strong, but a Big Hassle
Passwords will also be familiar to you and will work much the same way it works on your computer. You can choose a password four to 17 characters long.
The longer the password the better, but we think inputting a password every time you want to use your phone will quickly become a pain. Which leads us to the last option…
This is a relative newcomer to the security game, but it’s easily the best and most secure—after all, you’re not going to forget your fingerprint, and it’s basically impossible to spoof. On most devices, this is simply called “fingerprint,” but on Nexus devices, it’s called “Nexus Imprint.” For all intents and purposes, though, they’re the same thing.
Settings it up is easy-peasy: just touch your phone’s fingerprint reader several times while it records the print. It’s good to move your digit around at different angles to ensure the most accurate reading.
You’ll also have to set a PIN, Pattern, or Password lock in addition to your fingerprint—which is useful when, say, your phone is lying on a desk and the fingerprint sensor is covered up.
Unlock Your Phone Automatically with Smart Lock
While lock screen security is essentially a must, it can get annoying. Entering a pattern or a PIN every time you pull out your phone is exhausting, and can quickly make you wonder whether the extra security is worth it.
Enter Smart Lock. This feature allows you to set specific situations in which you don’t need to enter your pattern or PIN. For example, you can set your home address as a “trusted location”—as long as you’re home, the device will stay unlocked (it uses GPS to determine your location).
And that’s just one example. You can also keep your phone unlocked while it’s connected to a Bluetooth device (like your car, headphones, or smartwatch), when it sees your face (using the front camera), hears your voice, or when it detects that it’s on your body. The latter could be a bit sketchy, however, since it can’t tell your body from someone else’s—it just detects the movement.
Trusted place and trusted devices, however? Solid choices. Between the fingerprint scanner and my Android Wear watch, I almost never enter my PIN—but it would still stop a thief if my phone were stolen.
Get Your Lost Phone Back with a Lock Screen Message
If you enable a lock screen, here’s an idea: fill in your owner info so that if you do lose your phone, any honest person that finds it can then easily return it to you. You you can do this under Settings > Security > Lock Screen Message. Simple enough.
Encrypt Your Phone for Serious Protection
Here’s something scary: A tech-savvy thief doesn’t actually need your PIN to get data off your phone. If they know what they’re doing, they can access the phone’s storage directly, using a computer or other device. That’s where encryption comes in.
Encryption is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, if you use encryption, then no one can access your phone’s contents without the PIN or password. Your data is basically jumbled nonsense unless you have that info.
That said, encryption requires your phone to work harder, which can in turn slow it down. This may not be such an issue with today’s better performing devices, but if you have an older or slower phone, it may. Also, encryption is irreversible: once you turn it on, you cannot undo it unless you wipe your phone. So if you do decide it’s dragging your phone down, you’ll have to set your phone back up from scratch.
Finally, if you do encrypt your phone, and you forget the passcode, you are forever out of luck or until you remember how to unlock it. You can never get back into your device without that code. No tricks, or hack, or backdoors exist to help you out of this jam.
For the full rundown on how to encrypt your Android device and why you want to, check out our article here.
Keep Your Cellular Account Protected with SIM Card Lock
Locking your SIM card doesn’t mean you can’t access your phone, but you won’t be able to use it until you key in a code to unlock it.
This does nothing to prevent someone from swapping in another SIM card and just using your phone that way. Still, it does deter someone from taking your phone and using it to rack up costly bills on your account.
For a more detailed look at SIM lock, including how to set it up, head here.
Set Up Android Device Manager and Track Your Phone if It Gets Lost
So what happens if, even after all of this, you still lose your phone? Android actually includes a feature that will allow you not only locate where your phone is, but will also let you ring it loudly if you’ve misplaced it, lock it with a password, as well as wipe it remotely.
It’s called Android Device Manager, and it should be enabled by default. If not, however, you can manually turn it on by jumping into the “Device administrators” menu.
We have a complete tutorial on how to use this feature here. We encourage you to check it out and explore further.
Virus Protection: Do You Need It on Your Phone?
The short answer: no, we don’t see the point.
Android can get viruses, but we think getting a virus on your device is actually far more difficult than anti-virus makers would have you believe. In years of owning multiple Android devices, and installing many different applications from the Play Store, we still have yet to contract a virus. And anyone who tells you need virus protection is likely trying to sell you AV software, or doesn’t know what they’re talking about. (Even if you did get a virus, there’s not much Android antivirus apps can do to help.)
Still, here are a few tips we can pass along to better guide your judgment:
- Only install well-known apps from the Play Store.
- Avoid seemingly nonsensical, one-dimensional apps.
- Make sure you check for permissions that don’t seem right (see Lesson 2 for more on permissions).
- Don’t install apps from outside the Play Store (also known as “sideloading”). There are plenty of legitimate apps you can download on the web as APK installers, but it bypasses one of Android’s best security mechanisms: Google’s vetting process.
At the end of the day, viruses aren’t what you need to worry about. You’re more liable to be at risk from apps that spy on you, but if you do your research and you pay attention to permissions then we feel that’s the best way to avoid most malware. When it comes down to it, old fashioned good sense will usually keep you out of trouble.
Apart from that, keep your device protected from thieves, and you’ll be just fine.
Our final lesson we’ll cover the whole range of data management including managing storage space and keeping your data backed up.