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A Lost PDA puts Your Data in Danger

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Have you seen my PDA?

I have a confession to make... I'm really hard on personal electronics.In just over two years, I have eliminated two pagers, three cellphonesand two PDAs. I lost a pager to a toilet and another to a sewagetreatment plant (don't even ask about that). I left a cellphone on atrain, and I sat on a PDA.

I have been fortunate, though. While the data was lost to me forever,with the exception of the cell phone, information on these devices wasn'trecoverable by anyone else, either. Plus, I subscribe to theback-up-early-and-often theory, and so rebuilt my ''memory'' without toomuch aggravation.

Of course, there was the small issue of explaining to my boss why Ineeded another pager... especially that second time.

We rely ever more heavily on electronics to provide us records,note-taking space, contact information and scheduling services on aminute's notice and in any location. We use them for impromptu picturesof things to be dealt with later, and we download pages of data we'llneed soon and quickly.

So we all cringe when someone in the office says, ''Have you seen myPDA?'' We know the poor guy already has scoured the house, the car (bothof them), the gym bag -- maybe even the diaper bag -- and the office,before exposing himself to the inevitable derision about losing hiselectronic mind.

There's an important consideration here. What really has been lost?

Yes, there's the inconvenience that our victim will be late or miss everyappointment he's scheduled over the next three months. Unless he's backedup his data to his computer or some other device or drive, all hisbusiness contacts are gone. (Ask yourself how much overlap there isbetween your personal cell phone and your business contacts listed onyour PDA if you don't have a business phone.) He might be able to recoverpersonal numbers from his cell, but what about mailing addresses andbirthdates of the people (business or personal) important to him?

If your PDA is like mine, it has plenty of functions that allow forsketches, notes, and other bits of trivia that go into daily businessactivities. Are these drawings part of the prototype for your company's''next big thing''? Your cell phone allows you to take photos, downloadWebpages of company documents, and list bullets for the big memo to yourboss's boss about the status of the secret project. If this goes missing,what happens then?

If you've destroyed it, as I am wont to do, it's almost OK. That data ismarinating in its own juices, never to be seen again.

If you've left it behind on the train, the bus or the airplane, you canhope that whoever finds it isn't very savvy, and won't be interested inexamining the contents too carefully. You could take the view thatpeople, as a whole, are primarily good guys and you'll see it againsooner or later. Or not.

There's also the possibility that people are primarily self-motivated,and whatever benefits them most is their likely course.

This means they may call you and ask for a reward. This is a good thing.They may call your boss and offer to sell the contents back to thecompany. (Here's an interesting thought: would you want your boss to seeALL the content on your PDA? That might include all those appointmentswith the competition when you were thinking about changing jobs?) Theymay call the competition, and offer to sell the data to them. Or, theymay choose any combination of choices.

Imagine thinking you're safe because you paid a reward for you PDA, andgot it back safely. Then imagine being called into the boss' office a fewweeks later to explain why the competition is going to press with theproject you were directly responsible for. And maybe in the course ofthat conversation, your boss asks you why you met multiple times withsaid competition several months ago.

Let's make matters worse. Were all your usernames and passwords on themissing PDA as well? What about your bank account numbers? (Ooooh, itwould be so handy for someone to have the name and phone number of yourbroker, along with your personal/question answer, too.)

How hard would the theft of your identity be, at this point?

I know I'm asking tough questions here, and they are questions that don'thave simple answers.

The manner in which we use our PDAs is due to the need they fill in ourlives. It isn't just about convenience. This is a situation we ignore atour own peril. But options are few. Recovering your own data is thesimple part. Back your stuff up... somewhere.

Protecting it from others is something else entirely.

There are packages available for encrypting all the data on your PDA.They're handy and fairly simple to use. The key here is that you have asingle point of failure. If you forget the password, you might as wellhave dropped your PDA in the lake. The data is safe from everyone...including you.

The important thing is to think about possible implications andcomplications resulting in the loss of any small electronic device.

When I drowned my pager, and I couldn't be ''found'' for several days, itwasn't much of an inconvenience. When I sat on my PDA and made all myinformation disappear, I was a little more annoyed.

Had I lost it, I would have had to change all my root passwords, mycredit card accounts, and dealt with a number of other majoraggravations. Now, I choose not to keep that information on my PDA. Istill have all my phone numbers and addresses, for both personal andbusiness contacts, meeting notes, appointments, schedules and deadlineson it. I back it up religiously, and when synching, I review what'soutdated, or what's already been transferred or revised on my laptop ordesktop system. If that information is already somewhere else, I take itoff. If it's not, and should be, I make the time to move it.

In the end, I was lucky. I only had to hear comments about being anoverachiever. I couldn't just drop my pager in a toilet, I had to drop itin everybody's toilet.

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