Family life

How safe are apps?

Apps are fun and convenient, but with so much information being passed around in the palm of your hand, how safe are they, really?

Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

Some days, running errands can feel daunting—corralling kids into the car, trying to keep them occupied in lines, and then, of course, someone has to hit the bathroom—which is why the idea of using mobile and smartphone apps to manage your money and to-do list can feel like divine intervention in your time-crunched life.

Read more: Best time-saving apps for parents>

According to Trend Micro, a security software company head-quartered in Tokyo, more than one billion smartphone and tablet subscribers worldwide will be doing some of their banking with a mobile device by 2017. Nearly 60 percent of Canadians already use mobile apps on their smartphones (and 64 percent on their tablets) to check bank balances and make payments at least once a month, while about 30 percent downloaded and used at least one app from a retailer, according to a 2013 survey by the Canadian arm of research firm International Data Corporation. Vancouver mom Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch, who runs her own video gaming company, uses apps to help manage her business and personal finances. “Being able to do that from wherever I am is a huge time saver,” she says.

But are they safe?

Sure, apps save you time, but security concerns may make some parents reluctant to jump on the bandwagon. Next year, Trend Micro expects one major data breach to occur every month from major companies, while more sophisticated phishing (emails that appear to be from a familiar source, but aren’t, seeking personal information) will become more common. Mobile devices will also be vulnerable to threats such as clickjacking, which tricks users into clicking on websites that release “malware,” malicious software that is intended to disrupt or disable computers and even extract personal data.

Many people carry smartphones 24-7, whether it’s to read the news, pay bills, search the Internet or take pictures and videos. That means our behaviours, habits and sensitive personal data can be at risk, says Elizabeth Denham, BC’s Information and Privacy Commissioner. “We are walking around with this treasure trove of data on our smartphones and tablets that can be shared with third parties at a click of the wrong button,” she says.

Key threats (in terms of apps) include downloading ones that contain malware that can access personal information on your phone and provide profiles of your behaviours and locations.

Read more: Kids and responsible cell phone use>

Bottom line, it’s important to take precautions to keep your info as safe as possible. David Fewer, director of the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic at the University of Ottawa, recommends you ensure you’re using encrypted websites or “https” sites (not just http) when possible, and avoid doing mobile banking and other financial transactions on unsecured public Wi-Fi networks. Downloading software to protect your devices, as well as keeping it up to date, is important. Always use strong passwords that include uppercase letters, numbers and symbols, if available.

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A version of this article appeared in our March 2014 issue with the headline “Are apps safe?” pp. 28-30.