Using a mobile phone can be a risky business. But while any link with cancer is still to be proved, there is no doubt about the dangers of driving and using a hand-held and the phones’ vulnerability to security lapses, writes Andrew Leslie

Five billion people own mobile phones, according to the International Telecommunications Union. In many European countries, there are more mobiles than there are people. They are ubiquitous, annoying, enjoyable, reassuring and, above all, useful. It’s increasingly hard to contemplate a world without them. But they are not risk-free, especially when it comes to business. And with computer-in-the-pocket status virtually here, those risks are, if anything, increasing.

In 2008, when the UK’s Independent headlined an article ‘Mobile phones “more dangerous than smoking”’, it brought to a head many of the concerns about the effects of the microwave radiation caused by mobiles. As well as cancer, mobiles have been tentatively (sometimes heavily) linked to memory loss, joint pain, headaches,cataracts and asthma.

The problem is that mobile phones simply have not been around long enough for scientifi c research to reach any fi rm conclusions – especially in the case of cancer, a disease that can take decades to develop.

Most investigations, including the recently released Interphone study of 13,000 people, interview a group of disease sufferers about their phone use and then compared them with a control group of disease-free phone users. What is needed is to track phone use accurately fi rst, and then compare the development of disease.

On the basis of such studies that have been done, the European Commission Scientifi c Committee on Emerging and Newly Identifi ed Health Risks concluded in 2007 that “exposure to RF [radio frequency] fi elds is unlikely to lead to an increase in cancer in humans”. The results of the Interphone study are unlikely to affect this – although they suggest that there may be increased risk for heavy users.

Long-term view

In an effort to put uncertainty to rest, a new study was launched in April this year by Imperial College, London. The ‘Cohort study of mobile phone use and health’ (COSMOS) is mailing 2.4 million phone users in the UK, aiming to sign up 100,000 people prepared to allow their health and phone use to be tracked over a period of up to 30 years. The project may be extended to Europe, with 250,000 people eventually taking part.

Meanwhile, it may be as well for organisations that require their employees to use mobiles to think about what they should be advising in terms of health risks. The Department of Health guidelines are clear that children should avoid excessive use, and that adults are better protected by hands-free apparatus and, again, by avoiding excessive use.

They are equally clear that wi-fi and Bluetooth carry minimal risk. But every media health scare involving mobiles is bound to lead to worry – and fi nding the best way to reassure and promote best practice is only sensible.

On the road

Since evidence clearly shows that using a handheld mobile phone while driving increases the risk of an accident by a third or more, most European countries ban their use. Only Portugal currently also bans hands-free devices, despite research showing that, in terms of distracting the driver from the road, there is little difference between the two. A 2003 study in Utah even suggested that a driver over the legal limit for alcohol consumption was actually less likely to have an accident than a driver using a mobile phone.

The use of mobiles while driving is a clear and substantial risk. Furthermore, the annual survey carried out by the Department for Transport shows that van and lorry drivers (hence often employees) are more likely to use mobiles than car drivers.

If there is an accident, it is increasingly common for police to check phone records to see if a mobile might be a factor. If the mobile belongs to the employer, there is a direct danger that the employer may become liable in any criminal proceedings brought against the driver.

There is only one sensible policy here. Ban your workforce from using mobiles when they are driving (the law also encompasses being stationary at traffi c lights). Don’t invest in hands-free devices: the likelihood is that these too will be brought within the ban at some point. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) has a good example of the kind of policy employers should be using. It includes making staff aware of:

• the dangers of using a hand-held or hands-free mobile phone while driving;

• the organisation’s policy on mobile phone use;

• the need to go to voicemail, or to switch the phone off while driving, and to stop in a safe place to check messages, or to allow a passenger to use the phone;

• that good communication can easily be maintained without using a phone while driving; and

• the importance of line managers not expecting staff to make or receive calls when driving.

Security concerns

It’s easy to forget that today’s mobile phones can be as vulnerable to malicious attacks as PCs or laptops. They have two additional vulnerabilities – communication by radio, and the fact they are so easily lost or stolen (about 10,000 every month in the UK alone). Trying to ban business data from being carried on your organisation’s phones is probably a losing battle. It may be better to concentrate on core security issues, such as:

• ensuring that everyone has the most up-to-date security applications installed – these should include the ability to wipe data from a phone remotely;

• reporting lost or stolen mobiles immediately, so that the phone can be blocked; and

• treating wi-fi hotspots with caution and making sure communications are encrypted. Finally, don’t forget that employees can use mobiles (and MP3 players) to ‘podslurp’ data. Make sure that your offi ce network is suffi ciently controlled to prevent this. ¦

Andrew Leslie is an analyst with StrategicRISK