Why Smartphone Owners Won't Use Lock Screens

Locking the screen on your smartphone is one of the easiest and most effective things you can do to protect it. Four little numbers or an alphanumeric password can be an incredible deterrent to thieves, or even to inquisitive friends and family members, yet more than a quarter of smartphone owners in a recent study declined to do so.

What those people may not know is just how much personal data is stored on even the most modest phone, wrote six security researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, the International Computer Science Institute and Google, who collaborated on a paper called "Are You Ready to Lock?" that explored smartphone-user locking behavior.

MORE: 15 Best Mobile Privacy and Security Apps

The paper, which its authors will present at the ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security in Scottsdale, Arizona today (Nov. 5), is not a comprehensive study, but rather a small, qualitative sampling to illustrate a larger point. Researchers interviewed 28 smartphone owners about their habits and discovered that eight of them — more than one-quarter of the participants — did not use a lock screen at all.

Researchers found that among the 70 percent of participants who did lock their phones, their reasoning for doing so was sound. Phone-lockers cited everything from privacy to data costs for their decisions.

Those had not locked their screens had more nebulous concerns. Some of them had simply put it off; others wanted good Samaritans to be able to access a phone's contacts in case it was ever lost; some cited the inconvenience of constantly unlocking phones, which the study authors admitted amounted to an hour each month; and some felt that the data stored on the phone simply wasn't worth stealing.

Whatever the justifications, the researchers argued that not locking your phone is the much riskier option of the two. Most smartphone users never log out of their social media or e-mail accounts, both of which hold tantalizing information for phone thieves. Many banks require only a valid e-mail address to reset a password, and many users have their Social Security and credit-card numbers buried in their e-mail messages.

While readers should remember that 28 people are not necessarily indicative of the public's behavior at large, there are plenty of smartphone owners out there not taking adequate steps to protect their very available data. Either lock your smartphone or limit how much information you can access on it.

Marshall Honorof is a Staff Writer for Tom's Guide. Contact him at mhonorof@tomsguide.com. Follow him @marshallhonorof and on Google+. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.

Marshall Honorof

Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.