mobile work

Protecting - or rescuing - your smartphone on the road

November 21, 2013: 11:58 AM ET

The rise of mobile work has been a boon to data-recovery companies.

A smart phone with a cracked screen

FORTUNE -- Let's suppose you're catching up on some work at home and you accidentally drop your smartphone in your bubble bath. Don't laugh, it could happen: Three-quarters (75%) of Americans with mobile devices admit that they often use them in the bathroom, according to a survey by Sony.

Or say you're traveling. You've got all the data for tomorrow's big client meeting on your iPhone, and it somehow gets knocked into the hotel jacuzzi. What do you do?

The best first aid kit for a waterlogged phone, says Mike Cobb, is a plastic box with a tight-fitting lid "such as a Tupperware box," or a sealable plastic bag, half-full of rice (yes, dry uncooked rice) and a small piece of cardboard. "Set the phone on top of the rice with the cardboard in between, and seal it up," says Cobb. "The rice will absorb enough of the water that you, or a professional, may be able to retrieve all or some of the data."

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Weird as it seems to carry a box of rice in your briefcase, Cobb adds, "it is a portable solution. It hardly weighs anything, and it could help you avoid losing all your data." One note of caution: "Wait several hours before you try turning on the phone. If it isn't completely dry inside yet, you could short out some key components."

Cobb is chief engineer at DriveSavers, a data recovery company based in Novato, Calif., whose clients include NASA, Google (GOOG), Harvard University, Lucasfilm, and the U.S. Army. He's spent the past 20 years rescuing imperiled data from phones and other electronics that have been drenched in Gatorade, run through washing machines, soaked in coffee, and squashed in fender-benders.

The recent rise in remote and mobile work has been good for the data-recovery business, as more devices are now regularly exposed to extra hazards. "That's not to say that just sitting at your desk is risk-free," he adds -- which is why he insists that his team of data-retrieval engineers use special spill-proof cups at their workstations. "You have to push a button to drink from them," he explains.

A few more of Cobb's tips for risk-averse road warriors:

Carry a charger. "Laptop batteries die unexpectedly, usually when your charger is at home and you're not," Cobb notes. "So pack portable chargers wherever you go."

Be a little paranoid about public Wi-Fi. "Anyone hanging around an airport or coffee shop with a little knowledge of how to do it can grab your bank account details and other sensitive information more easily than you may think," Cobb says. He recommends services like proXPN and Anonymizer to mask your location and secure your Internet connection against eavesdroppers.

Take extra care in airports. "Airport X-ray machines and other screening equipment don't create a strong enough magnetic pulse to harm digital devices, but there's no guarantee you won't lose data if your laptop suffers damage from rough handling, such as being dropped by a screener or falling off a moving conveyor belt," Cobb observes. "Keep a close eye on your devices going through security" -- not only to make sure they're not stolen, but also "so you know exactly what happened" if you have to describe the damage to a data-recovery person.

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Always back up everything. Twice. "Any and all important information stored in your phone should be backed up both in the cloud, through a service like Dropbox or Google Apps, and on a laptop," says Cobb. "You want multiple sources of the same data, so that if one device gets lost or damaged, you have another way to access it."

Of course, if everyone followed that advice, Cobb's company would be out of business, but there seems to be no danger of that. "I've spoken with so many people who have never backed up any of their devices, ever," he says. "It just amazes me."

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