Home Articles SPECIAL REPORT: Curbing the data thief

SPECIAL REPORT: Curbing the data thief

Have you looked at your cellphone bill lately? Not a cursory look, but a really good look at what you are actually being charged for? You will notice that the offerings of the service providers have expanded and now include free talk minutes, data, and SMS or MMS. This may not come as a surprise, but what is surprising is that for some people the data element is becoming the largest portion by far of their total bill. Recently, there have been several incidents where individuals were charged thousands of rands for data and they cannot explain why or how this happened. They did exactly “what they did last month”.

In this article we seek to identify some of these data “thieves” so that you are not caught unawares. The article does not only speak to cellphone users, however: data “theft” is just as relevant to other devices that make use of data.


Cellphones have not only become smaller, faster and smarter; they have evolved into mobile computers. In the same manner as you would consider each programme you install on your computer, you also need to consider each programme (commonly referred to as applications or apps) you install on your cellphone. The characteristics and traits of each application differ from application to application. This includes their varying levels of use of data. You need to understand these characteristics or traits before installing any application. Many of these applications are often developed in countries where data has a relatively low cost or is free and developers do not even consider the amount or the cost of data an application may require.

Like any thief in the night, some “data thieves” you expect (see table), while others you do not. The unexpected offenders (see table) usually cause the most damage and use the most data. The obvious and most direct cost of data thieves is an excessive cellphone bill that arrives at the end of the month. This is followed by the time and effort it takes to obtain an understanding of why the bill is so high from your service provider’s helpful call centre agent in the hope to successfully reduce the bill. These data thieves can also negatively impact your cellphone’s operating performance where your phone is running applications in the background without your knowledge that might result in your phone being slower, hanging, or worse, keeping restarting and draining battery life.

The usual suspects include:
Viewing complex or large websites’ embedded softwareThis often includes advertisements
Sending and receiving emails with large attachments 
Video streaming from, for example, YouTubeIt is estimated that a single mobile YouTube visit can use the same amount of data as ten Facebook visits. The problem with viewing YouTube clips to pass time is that time flies faster that it appears
Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter have an addictive factor associated with itPeople tend to spend more time engaging social media sites than they expect. This uses data. Different activities also use different levels of data. Each time you view or upload photos you use more data than by simply reading status updates
Messaging services such as WhatsAppText messages use little data, but more users are starting to send photos and voice notes which require more data
Video chatting using platforms such as SkypeAlthough it is a cost-effective form of communication, many mobile Skype users would use video mode because it is available and convenient, while failing to take the cost impact into account. In voice mode Skype uses about 1 MB per minute, while video mode uses significantly more


The unexpected offenders include:
Many free applications use data on an on-going basisThese applications are free because in order to cover development costs and generate revenue for the developer they stream adverts while the application is being used
Some games interact with social media sites, online score boards, etcIf these settings are not changed upfront, this happens automatically
Applications such as Prezi operate as a “thin application” in which only the basic software sits on the phoneWhen the application is used, the “thin application” links to an online site which contains the software that runs the application. This effectively means the application is running online without the user being aware of it. Without an Internet connection, these applications do not work, since these applications run on data
Applications that sync online such as DropBoxMany users do not demarcate the folders which should be sync’ed correctly or store unnecessary files in these folders, which means that unnecessary files are uploaded to the “cloud”
Push notifications and real-time feeds that give you up-to-date information such as the daily weather report and traffic and news reportsThese also use data as the application searches for updated information continuously
Automatic application updates and patches use a lot of dataAs an application becomes more popular, more development time goes into writing updates to fix faults in the application. These updates are issued by the developer online and occur any time of the day. They can range from small files which need to be downloaded to very large files
Cellphone GPS services (particularly those built on a Google Map platform) are often based on the GSM networkGoogle Maps uses data and not only satellites like a typical Garmin navigation unit that relies solely on satellite information
Viruses and other malicious softwareJust as computers are subject to viruses, cellphones are also exposed to viruses. Many viruses download information (and hence use data)
Setting up a wireless hotspot using cellphone data from a cellphoneThis happens when the other devices such as a tablet or a PC use the cellphone’s data to sync or download patches in the background


Preventing data theft is a continuous process. It begins when you purchase your cellphone and continues while you are using it.

o          Getting a new phone

  • Understand what you are agreeing to when you buy a new phone and enter into a data contract. Before deciding on a data contract, identify your usage patterns and buy a contract that is suited to your needs. If you intend to use more than 100 MB data per month, get a bigger data plan because the additional data will cost less than the out-of-bundle data. Similarly, do not buy more data than you need. Ask the salesperson about the data usage of your new phone and what users have complained about.
  • Read the manufacturer’s guide or visit the cellphone company’s website.

o          Think carefully before you download anything

  • Understand what you are agreeing to when downloading any application. Read the terms and conditions of downloads. Furthermore, do not register for each and every website or service during the downloading process.
  • Don’t just tick the settings; read and unselect automatic updates; and set the data limiter on your phone. Download and read the user manual.
  • The first time you use the application, monitor how much data is used. Most app stores have applications that, once downloaded onto your cellphone, can monitor data usage in real time. Others show where and how your data is being used. Similarly, when using a new application for the first time, monitor the data usage.
  • Find alternative applications (that use less data) for the preload applications that come with your phone, for example Opera Mini. Alternatively, cache your data/application by saving information offline. For example, most GPS applications allow users to download maps onto the device.
  • Download only what is necessary, for example email headers.

o          When updating your cellphone

  • Never click automatic sync or updates. Rather set the updates to off-peak times or to when you are connected to a data-rich network. But remember you might expose your cellphone to security risk if you do this.
  • If you are automatically syncing or backing up, keep only the necessary files in the folder you are syncing and turn off push notifications if they are not required.
  • Plan when you are going to do updates and connect to the Internet at home or hotspots on WiFi so that you do not use data from your cellphone plan. Alternatively, update your phone using a USB connector or Bluetooth on your PC.
  • Install a third-party data manger that will review your data settings and get applications that compress data before sending and uncompress upon receipt.

o          Switch off the data function on your phone at night and when you are not using it

o          Take responsibility for your cell phone account

  • Review your account on a monthly basis.
  • You can put a cap on the value of credit on your cellphone account to a maximum limit that you are willing to pay. However, there is no guarantee that your service provider will cap your usage at your data limit.


By intentionally considering your settings and changing your data usage habits, you can prevent the data thief from catching you unawares and costing you time, money and frustration. If that does not work, buy an old cellphone: nobody wants to steal your old phone or your data.