Your mobile number is used for your protection, and you may be very sorry if you don’t.
In one of my more important articles — A One-Step Way to Lose Your Account Forever — I discuss the sad reality that accounts are frequently lost because people fail to set up recovery information or keep that recovery information current.
In most cases, it’s a simple oversight with disastrous results. One day, your account gets compromised somehow, and you have no way to prove you are the legitimate owner. Without that proof (in the form of recovery information used to verify your identity), your account is no longer your account. Period. Forever.
Sometimes, however, there’s a much more frustrating reason people fail to provide recovery information — in particular, their phone number.
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Why a phone number?
The reason email service providers want your phone number is very simple: When (not if) you have trouble logging into your account, that phone number can be used to verify that you are who you say you are.
Your phone number is one small part of your identity. As long as you maintain that number in working order, it’s how the people you share it with reach you. Even if you lose your phone, that number can be reassigned to your replacement phone by your carrier.
If an online service needs you to prove that you’re the account owner and you have the right to log in to that account, even if the password doesn’t seem to be working, that phone number you gave them when you set up the account is the proof they use.1 They text you a code. Your ability to provide that code when asked proves you have the phone at that number.
It proves you are who you say you are.
It proves you should be allowed access to the account with which you associated that phone number.
The fear: tracking via your mobile number
Google will not use your mobile phone number to spy, track, or otherwise compromise your privacy.
They just won’t.2
Some people are convinced that if they hand over their phone number, all of a sudden Google is going to do exactly that and probably more evil things they can’t even think of.
They fear Google more than they fear losing their account.
I don’t get it. I really don’t get it. If you fear Google that much, then why have a Google account at all? Why aren’t you concerned about the tracking inherent in your Android phone or the Google account itself?
Or why have a Google account that is in any way “important” to you? (If you honestly don’t care if an account gets compromised, then recovery information like a phone number is immaterial — but in my experience, you’ll care.)
Not everyone has a mobile number
There’s one valid reason not to give Google your mobile number: if you don’t have a mobile phone. Google, at least, seems to assume that everyone does, and that’s not true. (Not to mention that SMS may not be available at all times, such as when traveling.)
It’s frustrating because many systems (such as Google’s two-factor authentication) use non-SMS-capable phone lines to provide a code at recovery time via automated voice. Why this is not currently available for alternate account verification, I have no idea.
They could also do a better job explaining why they ask for a number in the first place, including how and when that number would be used.
I keep saying “when, not if” you run into account access problems because it happens to all of us for a variety of reasons. It’s just a matter of time. Without alternate access information, you stand a chance of losing your account forever.
If you have a mobile number, add it to your account.
If you have an alternate email address, add it to your account.
If there is additional information requested that could be used to prove your identity to recover your account, add it to your account.
Someday, you’ll be very, very glad you did.
I’m betting you’ll also be glad if you subscribe to Confident Computing! It’s my weekly newsletter sharing less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.