Security-for the information on your smartphone, as well as for the device itself-is a hot topic these days. The truth is you're packing a lot of sensitive information on your phone, and you should keep it safe.
When it comes to physical security, iPhone users would do well to download Find My iPhone, a free app from Apple that allows you to visit a website and see your (lost, stolen or misplaced) phone on a map. You can then sound an alarm, send a message that will pop up on its screen, lock the phone or erase all your data.
Android does not have an exact equivalent, but there are plenty of alternatives. A free app called Lookout offers the find-my-phone feature and also scans downloaded apps for "malware" and backs up your data on its servers. The paid version allows you to wipe the data from your phone remotely and will monitor your phone's Web browser, warning you if you visit unsafe Web sites. (A version of the free app is available for Apple devices.)
Then there is your coffee shop's WiFi network. Anyone with minimal technical expertise can snoop on people using shared wireless networks, harvesting passwords and other personal data. Lookout's apps will warn you when you've logged on to an unsecure network, but cannot protect you once you're there.
In order to protect yourself on such networks, you can use a virtual private network, or VPN. This turns all your activity into unintelligible nonsense to anyone trying to read along with you from across the Starbucks. It also keeps Web sites from tracking you and, if you're travelling, allows you to get access to sites that may be blocked in other countries.
These are priced more like computer programs than smartphone apps. PandaPowVPN is a basic tool for Android, and costs $84 annually, or $9 a month. If you have an iPhone, the simplest VPN app is probably Hotspot Shield, which costs $1 a month or $10 annually. (AnchorFree, which makes the app, says it will be available for Android soon.) AnchorFree says its app pays for itself by compressing your data, helping you stay within the limits of a data plan. This should also make browsing faster, but I can't say I noticed a difference.
The distinguishing feature, though, is it automatically kicks in each time you start browsing, as opposed to other VPN apps that require you to start them up manually. This matters, because even if you decide you want a VPN app, you want to spend approximately zero time thinking about it. For the most part, that was true of Hotspot Shield, though occasionally it took a while to connect or temporarily lost connection without warning. I found myself having to turn the app on and off sometimes, which involved fiddling with my phone's settings.
If even reading about the settings on your phone drives you insane, then it is probably best to stay away from a VPN app. But if you're the type who can't resist checking your bank balance from your corner bar, the hassle may be preferable to the risk.