Overheard conversations: When heightened mobile security fails to protect

You can encrypt, use multi-factor authentication, connect via VPN, have anti-malware software and still give away your identity by making a fundamental mistake when using your mobile phone: Talking too loud.
Written by Ken Hess, Contributor

You've heard them at restaurants, sports events and possibly in washrooms — those people who talk too loud on their mobile phones. You thought they were just rude or unaware of the existence of other people, but what they are really guilty of is giving thieves within earshot free access to private information. It's amazing how much information is leaked through this method. No matter how much security you place on someone's phone or what you do to prevent information theft, you just can't shut people up.

All you have to do is focus in on a conversation at a bookstore, restaurant, mall or really any public setting to find out all about someone's life. For the past few days, I've listened with interest to a few conversations. During the course of these conversations, I've learned all about one woman's quest to extract child support from her baby daddy. I've heard about an older lady's hernia operation in extreme detail. I've listened in on two twenty-something's efforts to "hook up." And I've heard one very interesting discussion of how to steal a cell phone and make it your own with the help of a cellular provider (I'm planning to do my own investigative report on that one in the next few weeks — lucky you).

 The funniest conversation I overheard was a man, obviously talking to his wife, who proceeds to give his wife, in a very frustrated tone, his Social Security number and a credit card number, including the three-digit security code from the back of the card. Yes, over the phone, in a bookstore. He had to repeat the numbers a couple of times so that she, who was probably repeating them on the other end of the phone, could make a purchase. I guess he thought his little talk was private since he was sort of off to himself, facing away from everyone.

It didn't matter. I was behind him, pretending to look at the clearance items on a nearby table. He didn't even notice me as he walked by in a huff, nor did he think that I heard every word he said and could have written it down or recorded it. Alas, I could have had a new Nook (or a host of other things) that day, but I didn't partake of his folly.

Instead, I laughed knowing that I now had enough fodder for this post. I was just in the right place at the right time with him. I didn't seek him out like I did the others mentioned earlier. As far as I know, I was the only one listening to him, but there's a possibility that he'll find some unrecognized charges on his next credit card bill thanks to his carelessness.

We all believe that our conversations are secure from eavesdroppers, but we're wrong. It's kind of funny what you and I take for granted. For example, I wasn't doing anything illegal by overhearing his conversation. I wasn't even trying to hear it. I think we assume that our faces are protected by law from camera flashes, our conversations are protected by the First Amendment and our personal information that we spew out at 90 decibels is actually private. It really isn't. And as for the other two, neither are they.

Sure, you can say whatever you want and that is certainly protected by The Constitution, but you can't tell a bystander to "unhear" your 16-digit credit card number that you so freely gave him. Of course, he does commit a crime when he uses it. It's like leaving the keys to your car in its ignition. Your car is yours and no one should touch it but, if you're a reasonable person, you know that when you return from a two-hour mall walk, your car isn't likely to be there. You've basically given it away.

My "common sense" suggestions for mobile phone conversations:

  • Don't conduct private business in public.
  • Never give account numbers over the phone unless you're in a private place, such as your car.
  • Cover your mouth if you have to give out private info in a hurry — I can read lips easily because when people give numbers on a cell phone, they enunciate clearly.
  • Restrooms are not private locations.
  • If you have to talk loud so that the other party can hear you, so can everyone else.
  • Assume that someone is listening and watching. Someone always is.
  • If it's private or personal, it can probably wait.

Don't take chances with your information. Maybe you've been lucky until now but your luck will run out. Eavesdropping is the easiest method of "stealing" your information. And never leave your phone unattended, even for a "minute" because it only takes a few minutes to install malware on your phone. If you don't believe me, a local TV reporter did a story on someone I know who was spied on using her cell phone.

No amount of protection can protect you from yourself. Use encryption, VPNs, anti-malware software, armed guards and a bug zapper but none of it will do a bit of good if you're talking too loud. Some good advice from your childhood: use your inside voice.

Have you overheard any interesting or security compromising conversations in public places? Talk back and let me know.

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