Securely Wiping Phones or Computers

People really value their cellphones and devices.

A survey conducted by Lookout and IDG Research found that when phones are lost or stolen, victims will go to great lengths to get them back. Half of the victims would pay $500 and one-third would pay $1,000 to get them back. Two-thirds of theft victims also express willingness to put themselves at physical risk to regain their devices.

It’s not the devices themselves that are so valuable, but the data stored on them. Not all the data on smartphones is valuable to anyone but the owner, but some is. It is important to securely wipe phone or computer personal content when you sell or abandon your devices. It can be the very outline needed for very convincing identity theft or direct meddling in such things as the owner’s bank account or even his or her personal relationships.

Wiping crucial data is never automatic. A “Kill switch” application would use the network to shut down a device, even erase all data on it and render the phone inoperable, once it’s reported missing or not in use any more. But, efforts to legislate “kill switch” devices on smartphones have repeatedly failed to pass legislatures.

The contents of cell phones and abandoned devices are more valuable to the underground economy than the devices themselves.

According to the courts, if you abandon your cell phone you can no longer automatically expect privacy regarding information left on the phone. It becomes public, just as an abandoned stripped car would be.  The person who abandoned the equipment, “must demonstrate that he or she had an actual subjective expectation of privacy” when the device was abandoned.

Your old cell phone data can re-emerge from the past to haunt you. Cast-off phones and abandoned computers usually contain troves of valuable information, like bank account passwords, personal emails, or private photographs. In a test of this theory, PCWorld bought 13 second-hand internet-capable phones from various sellers on eBay, small businesses, and flea market stands in the San Francisco Bay area. They found that 5 of the 13 phones still had information on them. This included contact information, voicemail, text messages, and photographs. Any identity thief could buy used cell phones from “less formal” sales outlets and have a 40 percent chance of finding theft-useful information on them.

Smartphones usually store data in at least two places. the phone’s internal memory, external SIM cards, and in some cases additional external micro SD cards. The SIM cards and external SD cards were removed from all the phones bought in the PCWorld article. People tend to forget that they have to wipe data from the phone’s internal memory. When you remove the SD card, the phone can no longer communicate with the network, but the internally stored phone lists and other information are still within the phone’s internal memory. Some phone manufacturers have added a lot of internal memory, so the data available for theft on abandoned phones can be extensive.

Re-sellers of abandoned smart phones are very often careless about the information remaining in the phones they sell.  There is no regulatory body forcing used-phone dealers to delete data. Even the United States Department of Defense (DoD) has no guideline for removing data from abandoned DOD smart phones.

If you expect another party to wipe your phone for you, you are playing “identity-theft roulette.”

Before selling or recycling your cell phone or tablet, you should wipe it clean. It’s not always as easy as you might think. Your smart phone or tablet has the outline of your entire life on it. You really will not be able to wipe all these contents by hand. You need to put the device back to the state it was when it left the factory, before it acquired these new memories. The devices generally have a factory re-set option, usually listed in the menu under “Privacy,” “Reset,” or “System” headings.

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