Tablets fall somewhere between smartphones and laptops on the portable device scale. Because they're larger and less convenient than a smartphone, but not as powerful as a laptop, tablet PCs often slip under the radar when it comes to security precautions. However, most users carry quite a bit of sensitive data on their tablets, which means that skimping on security can be a costly mistake. (Get background on Internet security and privacy in 1984 in 2013: Privacy and the Internet.)

Why Tablet Security Gets Overlooked

By now, most people know how important it is to protect the data on their desktops and laptops with security features, anti-virus software and backup solutions. Smartphone users have become more aware of the security risks, especially for stolen phones, and learned to use stronger passwords and lockout measures. But what about tablets?

Tablet PCs are often used as interim devices for times when you’re not at your primary computer. It’s easier to do things like check email, post on Facebook and send documents from tablets, although they usually aren’t quite comfortable enough to serve as primary workstations.

In addition to the transitional nature, many people use tablets more for entertainment than work. That means it’s easy to forget about the few times you may have logged into business accounts or worked with sensitive data with a tablet, since most of the time you’re e-shopping or watching Netflix. Of course, making online purchase with a tablet means that your credit card info also may be stored on the device.

Hardware and Human Error Risks

Most threats to tablet security come from human error or hardware theft. Of course, human error is always a risk for any Internet-connected device. Whenever you’re working with websites, email and social networks, there are threats of malware, spam, phishing scams and more. Tablets, like smartphones, present the additional possibility of malware-infected apps. (Learn more about some top tech security risks in The 5 Scariest Threats in Tech.)

The potential threat can also vary according to your tablet’s operating system (OS). Apple’s iOS has a rigorous vetting process in place for apps available through its iStore, so it’s rare for an iPad user to suffer a malware infection through apps (although all bets are off for those who jailbreak their devices). Android, on the other hand, isn’t quite so thorough when it comes to vetting apps.

Regardless of your platform, there are several steps you can take to minimize the risk of downloading infected apps:

  • Do some self-research before you download an app: Google the app author; avoid apps that are normally paid but seem to be available for free and read the permissions for personal data used by the app to make sure you’re comfortable with them.
  • Don’t jailbreak (root) your tablet. This will help you avoid exposure to malicious apps, especially with iOS devices.
  • If you’re using your tablet on a public Wi-Fi network, don’t visit websites or log into accounts that aren’t SSL encrypted. Look to the navigation bar for the lock icon and a URL that begins with "https" to ensure security.
Having your tablet stolen is another security threat. Device theft, including tablets and smartphones, happens so frequently that in most cases, law enforcement personnel are unable to help recover a stolen device, although there are a few steps you can take to improve the odds that it will be found.

Here’s a brief security checklist to keep on hand, in case your tablet is stolen:

  • Write down or save your device’s serial number (found in the Settings menu) in a place other than your tablet to help prove ownership of a stolen tablet.
  • Make sure the GPS function on your device is activated when you start using it, and keep it activated at all times.
  • Keep your tablet locked with a password, so a thief can’t gain immediate access to your data.
  • Immediately contact the police if your tablet is stolen. The longer you wait, the harder it will be for law enforcement personnel to track it down.
  • Have remote wiping capabilities set up ahead of time, so you can delete all your personal data from your tablet in the event that you’re unable to recover it quickly.

Secure Software

While every tablet has some security features built into the device, you can strengthen your tablet’s security by using third-party software for additional protection. There are several types of security software for tablets, including apps and programs. These include:

  • Location software like Find my iPhone for the iPad or Lookout Mobile Security for Android devices
  • Remote locking and wiping software
  • Anti-virus and anti-malware scanning programs
  • Backup, recovery and data loss prevention solutions
Many of these apps are free for consumer use, and there are also free or inexpensive corporate mobile security programs available. Choose programs and apps that are compatible with your tablet platform, preferably those backed by well-known names in digital security.

Tablets are so fun and friendly, and we often forget that by using them, we can still put our personal data at risk. By taking a few precautions, you can keep tablets as secure as other devices. Your tablet computer may not appear to be a risk, and you may not even be sure it contains any personal data, but wouldn't you rather protect it - just in case - rather than find out about it after it's been stolen?