How to Secure Your iOS Device with a Longer Passcode

Data security and privacy concerns are first and foremost in the minds of many iOS device users. Some are overly preoccupied about this, others don't pay much attention to it. I, on the other hand, take a middle-of-the-road approach. I tell my clients and students that security awareness is indeed very important, but paranoia isn't helpful.

At a minimum, you should take some basic steps to secure your personal data while not going overboard and thus negatively effecting your productivity when using your device. One of the most basic actions you can take is to assign a passcode that unlocks your device and allows unfettered access to your apps and data.

Because of how Apple has engineered the more recent iOS devices, using a passcode doesn't just casually lock the screen from prying eyes; there's much more going on under the hood!

When the iPhone 3GS was introduced, Apple beefed up the device's security with hardware encryption plus a software feature called Data Protection. This combination is also built into the original iPad and later models, as well as the iPod touch (3rd Gen) and later models. In all cases, the minimum iOS version is iOS 4.

Data Protection enhances the device's built-in hardware encryption by protecting the encryption keys with your passcode. It is configured by simply setting up a passcode for your device. The combination of hardware encryption and Data Protection via a passcode provides an additional layer of protection for your email messages and attachments. Additionally, third-party applications can use Apple's pre-built programming libraries (the Data Protection APIs) in iOS 4 and later to further protect application data.

Setting up a passcode is straightforward. Tap Settings > General > Passcode Lock. Tap Turn Passcode On and follow the prompts to create your passcode.

The iPhone Passcode Lock settings panel.

Tap the Turn Passcode On button. Note the Simple Password control at the bottom.

Once the passcode is set, scroll down to the bottom of the screen and verify that the text "Data protection is enabled" is visible.

The Passcode Lock panel indicates that Data Protection is enabled.

Your verification that Data Protection is enabled on your device.

Starting with iOS 5, you have the option of entering more than just a Simple Passcode, which is the four-digit passcode - similar to a PIN - that we've always had. Once you turn Passcode on, you see a control for turning the Simple Passcode OFF. By selecting this, you enable the option of entering a more complex alpha-numeric passcode. You are prompted for your new passcode with a standard keyboard rather than a numeric keypad, and you can enter any alpha-mumeric password or phrase you wish.

Passcode entry screens showing the full alpha-numeric keyboard.

With Simple Passcode off, you can use the alpha-numeric keyboard to set-up a more complex passcode (left). You enter it when prompted at the Lock Screen (right).

Most people probably just use the Simple Passcode method of securing their device, particularly since it's the default setting. Inevitably, , however, many start to wonder if a four-digit passcode is sufficiently secure.

A quick mental calculation reveals that there are 10,000 possible combinations. I'm not that smart, and I need to pull out my iPad Abacus app to figure this out. There are 10 possible numbers for each of four positions (0 through 9). Ten to the fourth power (10x10x10x10) equals 10,000. That may or may not seem like a large number to you. Personally, I am fine with this. If I were storing plans for the next great single-brew espresso maker, I'd be eager to continue reading this article…

We all heard the mantra that the use of passcodes formed from combinations of digits, letters and symbols is the bee's knees of data security. That's certainly true, but let's just say you want the convenience of simply entering digits on a numeric keypad at the Lock Screen, but with more than just the four digits that you might have been used to. It's easy to set up.

Go back into the Passcode Lock settings panel. As before, disable Simple Passcode. You can now establish your multi-digit Passcode using the standard keyboard. Next time you see your Lock Screen, you will be presented with a numeric pad to enter your extended, multi-digit passcode.

The Lock Screen prompts for your multi-digit passcode with a numeric keypad.

At the Lock Screen, you are prompted for your multi-digit passcode via a numeric keypad.

If you've read this far, congratulations! It shows that you are interested in the best, but convenient ways to secure your mobile data. As time marches on, I expect that Apple will take great pains at making our devices more secure, while still keeping it easy and painless for you to set things just right for your particular data security needs.