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Remote control

Technology | Sprint has developed a new program to protect sensitive information stored on handsets

Issue: "Post-party election blues?," Nov. 6, 2004

With mobile phones becoming more and more like portable computers, Sprint announced a new program to protect sensitive information stored on handsets. Under the new "managed mobility" plan, companies can remotely block data from lost handsets.

The Kansas-based company said the program (set to start next year) will help managers who discover that they must monitor use of the cell phones, which may include confidential contact lists or other critical details, sitting loosely tucked in their employees' pockets and purses. Supervisors can disable handsets, scramble data, and change passwords without having the actual devices in hand.

(Sprint also offers an economic incentive in this package: Companies can buy pools of minutes for a fleet of phones, rather than maintain separate individual accounts.)

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This new service makes cell phones more like office PCs that hook up to a central corporate network. Bosses get more control over how people use company equipment, even if they are away from their workers. Sprint claims it wants to make wireless devices as secure and manageable as conventional wired phone systems.

Safe illusions

Millions of Americans are overconfident about their online safety, according to a nationwide survey that found most computers infected with spyware, while running outdated anti-virus software and no firewall.

The study commissioned by America Online and the National Cyber Security Alliance (a group backed by major tech companies and the federal government) called the problem a "perception gap." It found that about three-quarters of those polled said they were safe from online threats, but researchers found security risks upon inspecting the respondents' computers.

Perhaps the most serious issue of all was that nearly half of those with DSL and cable modem connections had no firewall protection from outside intruders. Three in five respondents said they didn't understand the difference between a firewall and anti-virus software very well or at all.

High-tech companies wind up taking the brunt of criticism for their customers' carelessness, along with a flood of tech support calls. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates said his company spent nearly $1 billion to improve security for the latest update of Windows XP. AOL bought full-page newspaper ads last month promising to make subscribers more secure.

Bits & Megabytes

•Online reputation systems, which let ordinary people rate or review books, movies, or online merchants, are now a major cultural force, according to a Pew survey that found over one-quarter of American internet users have posted their opinions. Sites like Amazon.com and eBay use them to let users collectively recommend or discourage use of the products or sellers on their sites. Posters tend to be young, male, and experienced at surfing the web.

•Microsoft plans to launch a new program that combines e-mail, instant messaging, video conferencing, and phone calls into one seamless package, code-named "Istanbul." Intended to be a step beyond the buddy list, the application tells users whether their colleagues are available and how they want to be contacted. People can also set up virtual conferences with one another with fewer logistical and technological hassles.

•A new worm called Funner is no fun for MSN and Microsoft Messenger users because it exploits security problems with Windows. It runs off an attached file called funny.exe, installs itself on the infected computer, sets itself to run at the next reboot, and mails itself to addresses poached off the user's contact list. Experts recommend updating anti-virus software, avoiding attachments, and limiting Messenger file transfers.

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