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Symantec's lost cell phone study confirms the worst in people

To see what happens when a cell phone is lost, Symantec "misplaced" 50 in cities around the country, such as this phone left behind in LA. The results are not pretty.Symantec

Don’t lose that smartphone -- or else.

A new study by security firm Symantec seems to confirm the worst in people, revealing that people who found a lost smartphone violated the loser’s privacy a whopping 89 percent of the time. And they weren’t just seeking a phone number or email address: On nearly half of those phones, the finder attempted to access the owner’s online banking app.

The Symantec Smart Phone Honey Stick Project sought to quantify just how likely you were to get back a phone you had lost, privacy and data intact.

The odds apparently aren’t good.

“There is a very high likelihood [that] attempts to access both sensitive personal- and business-related information will be made if a lost and unprotected smartphone is found by a stranger,” Symantec wrote in the study.

“In today’s world, both consumers and corporations need to be concerned with protecting the sensitive information on mobile devices,” the security firm concluded.

To conduct the research, the company “lost” 50 smartphones, intentionally leaving them in a number of highly trafficked public areas -- elevators, malls, food courts, public transit stops and so on -- in major cities across the U.S., including Washington D.C., New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The company then sat back and watched to see what happened, using the GPS on the phone to track its location and simulated apps meant to mimic banking apps and social networking tools and simulated data clearly labeled "private pictures" or "HR salaries."

Nearly all of the phones were found, and used -- and half of the finders contacted the owners. But far too often, those people crossed the line at the same time, the study said.

“People are naturally curious, but when a lost mobile device is discovered, curiosity can lead to the violation of personal privacy and the exposure of sensitive personal information.”

  • A total of 89 percent of devices showed attempts to access personal apps or data.
  • Attempts to access a private photos app occurred on 72 percent of the devices .
  • An attempt to access an online banking app was observed on 43 percent of the
  • devices.
  • A “Saved Passwords” file was accessed on 57 percent of the phones

The conclusion seems clear: Guard your privacy careful -- and your gadgets even closer.