Study: Americans are getting more serious about securing their smartphones

Americans’ use of basic security on their smartphones and tablets has risen significantly in the past three years, a new survey shows.

The survey, conducted by CTIA–The Wireless Association as a followup to a 2012 report, found that the use of personal identification numbers (PINs) or passwords, as well as mobile anti-virus software, has jumped in the last three years. In 2012, only half of Americans secured their phones with passwords, while 61 percent do so now. For tablets, 48 percent used passwords in 2012 and 58 percent do so now.

The use of anti-virus apps like Lookout rose modestly on smartphones (from 31 percent to 40 percent) but shot up on tablets, rising from 27 percent to 45 percent.

Americans understand that cybersecurity is important and know a modest amount about it. In the survey, a combined 83 percent had some awareness of the concept, with nearly a third of them defining it as the protection of personal information from identity theft. (Only 13 percent mentioned hackers.)

But Americans aren’t interested in adding extra steps to their routines, it found. While most of them use passwords or PINs, the use of more in-depth security measures—such as regular software updates and remote-locking functionality—actually declined on both smartphones and tablets from 2012 to 2015.

John Marinho, CTIA’s vice president of technology and cybersecurity, told the Daily Dot that the association was interested in further studying the way people used higher-level security measures.

“We plan to do more research to better understand the use of the more sophisticated techniques,” he said through a spokeswoman. “Statistically the use remains roughly constant when compared to 2012. It may be that the increase in PIN/Password usage reduced the incidence of things like remote wiping, but we will plan to study in much more detail in the 2016 research survey.”

Only 12 percent of respondents said they had lost a mobile device in the past year, and fewer than half of them (46 percent) attempted to remotely locate the device using a feature like Apple‘s Find My iPhone app. Far fewer of them (5 percent) tried an even simpler technique: calling the phone to see if they had misplaced it in their house or office.

The mixed security picture—an uptick in the use of basic tools and a decline in the use of more complex ones—comes as Americans’ use of sensitive online services, like banking, remains relatively stable. Only 45 percent of people used their phones to access their bank accounts, a meager one-percent increase from 2012.

At the same time, Americans do care about how their mobile data is used. Their top concern regarding companies’ use of their health data was how companies protected it from hackers. Their second most pressing concern was whether companies shared it with third parties, a common practice in a world where targeted digital advertising is one of the most lucrative and fast-growing online businesses.

Marinho said in a statement that the survey data “reinforces the need for the entire wireless ecosystem—network operators, device manufacturers and application/content developers—to continue to work together to stem the rising tide of security threats” through education and innovation.

CTIA touted its findings as cause for optimism in the mobile security landscape, but the survey comes at a time when Americans are increasingly cynical about the ability of companies to thwart the hackers who want their data. Millennials, in particular, are pessimistic that businesses in American industries can protect them. And beyond mobile devices, in the “Internet of Things” ecosystem of connected home appliances, Americans feel confident that they are secure despite practicing poor cyber hygiene.

Illustration by Max Fleishman 

Eric Geller

Eric Geller

Eric Geller is a politics reporter who focuses on cybersecurity, surveillance, encryption, and privacy. A former staff writer at the Daily Dot, Geller joined Politico in June 2016, where he's focused on policymaking at the White House, the Justice Department, the State Department, and the Commerce Department.