Matt Honan, the Wired writer who had his digital identity stolen in a harrowing cyberattack last year, is back with another chilling article about yet another technology failing to protect us: this time it’s our beloved smartphones. More specifically, it’s the ones we’ve left behind, donated or possibly even sold via eBay, when we upgraded to a newer mobile device. The problem? Even though we may “wipe” the phones, the process may still leave enough information behind for the wiped phone to reveal sensitive information about their owners, including where the phone has been (geographically), what websites have been visited, and even phone numbers, addresses and other confidential data we thought erased.
What this means for you:
Depending on the type of phone you are discarding, and how it is wiped, this may or may not be an issue for you. For example, iPhones after the 3G mentioned in the article are encrypted by default, and if “reset” properly, the encryption key is destroyed, rendering any data on the phone unreadable, even if it is recovered. Most large organizations with a savvy IT department will only allow smartphones to access corporate email and files after your phone has been configured with proper security settings, up to and including an encrypted partition to store your email and any files you might access from the corporate network. Most Android phones should be able to encrypt all data (check “Settings -> Security”) depending on version of Android your phone is running, providing the same type of protection that Apple has on its late-model iPhones.
I can hear you saying, “I don’t have any data on my phone that is sensitive,” and unless you are 100% sure of this, always assume there is something on your phone you don’t want untrustworthy eyes seeing. Even older flip-phones have phone numbers, addresses and other data you might not want to share with a stranger. If you are at all in doubt, hold on to that phone until you can talk to a professional about wiping it securely. If you don’t plan on letting the phone have a second life through eBay or donation, take it to an eWaste facility or event that offers secure destruction. This process renders the phone (and any electronic device, like a hard drive) down to its basic metallic components, completely destroying any data stored in any component. Don’t have access to such a process? Drop your phone into a bowl of water for a day or, as the Wired article suggests, take a hammer to it (wear proper safety equipment please!) before disposing of it through a proper eWaste avenue. This isn’t a guaranteed method, but it will take a dedicated effort that most data scavengers will bypass in favor of the next discarded smartphone that will be an easier mark.