How to protect personal data on devices you plan to sell

April 13, 2012 By Deborah Netburn

Thinking of selling or giving away your smartphone or laptop computer? If you have a BlackBerry or an iPhone, go right ahead. But if you have an Android phone or a computer running Windows XP, you may want to hold off.

It turns out that it's almost impossible to get rid of from some devices, even if you follow the manufacturer's directions for wiping the device clean.

Robert Siciliano, identity theft expert for the technology McAfee, found this out in an experiment he conducted over the fall and winter. He bought 30 from Craigslist - mostly smartphones and laptops - to see how effective people were at removing personal information from their gadgets before selling them.

Siciliano was shocked to discover that some people didn't take any security precautions at all before selling a computer.

"One guy asked me to log him out of if he was still logged in," Siciliano said. "I had no idea how naive some people can be."

In the end, Siciliano was able to glean from 15 of the devices through his own hacking efforts and the help of a forensic expert. That information included bank account information, , child support documents, credit card account log-ins and a host of other personal data.

And the worst part? Most of those phones and computers had already been "wiped" by their previous owners - meaning all personal files had been deleted and the user had restored the device's factory settings as per the manufacturer's instructions.

"What's really scary is even if you follow protocol, the data is still there," Siciliano said.

So, what's the difference between the devices that still reveal personal information after being wiped and those that don't?

Siciliano said it came down to the type of device and the operating system.

BlackBerrys were totally impenetrable. " has fantastic software," he said. "They did a really good job of destroying data when you reset the factory settings."

Devices running iOS, such as the iPad and , and computers running Windows 7 can also be wiped clean of personal data, as long as a person follows the manufacturer's directions.

If you have a BlackBerry, Apple device or computer running Windows 7 you'd like to sell, Siciliano recommends backing up your information first and then following the manufacturer's directions for restoring its factory settings.

If you've misplaced the little booklet that came with your you can find directions by typing "wipe BlackBerry" or "wipe iPad" into Google search, which should take you to BlackBerry- or Apple- sponsored Web pages with detailed instructions.

Don't think that your data are safe if you remove the SIM card from a phone. The only information you will protect that way is your contact list, but all other personal information will still be available on your phone.

If you are planning to buy one of these devices secondhand, Siciliano suggests that you wipe it again just to be safe, and also that you run an anti-virus program on it as well.

As for smartphones running the Android system and computers running Windows XP, Siciliano said he recommends people don't sell them at all.

"Put it in the back of a closet, or put it in a vise and drill holes in the hard drive, or if you live in Texas take it out into a field and shoot it," he said. "You don't want to sell your identity for 50 bucks."

Explore further: Kaspersky tips Android to dominate mobile

Related Stories

Kaspersky tips Android to dominate mobile

February 15, 2011

Computer security expert Eugene Kaspersky predicted on Tuesday that Google's Android smartphone operating system will come to dominate the market, reducing Apple and BlackBerry to niche players.

Cybercriminals target phones, Android 'most exposed'

February 29, 2012

Cybercriminals are sneaking a fast-increasing amount of malware into smartphones to steal data or even money, with those running on Google's Android most exposed to security threats, analysts said.

Security holes discovered in iPhones, iPads

July 8, 2011

A new security hole has opened up in Apple Inc.'s iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch devices, raising alarms about the susceptibility of some of the world's hottest tech gadgets to hacker attacks.

Recommended for you

Volumetric 3-D printing builds on need for speed

December 11, 2017

While additive manufacturing (AM), commonly known as 3-D printing, is enabling engineers and scientists to build parts in configurations and designs never before possible, the impact of the technology has been limited by ...

Tech titans ramp up tools to win over children

December 10, 2017

From smartphone messaging tailored for tikes to computers for classrooms, technology titans are weaving their way into childhoods to form lifelong bonds, raising hackles of advocacy groups.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Apr 13, 2012
I still have a 20 mb Hard drive from an original whatever it was that failed before I could wipe it, decades ago. What do I do with it.
not rated yet Apr 13, 2012
I still have a 20 mb Hard drive from an original whatever it was that failed before I could wipe it, decades ago. What do I do with it.

If it is something you do not need, make it physically unusable. This means drilling several holes completely through the case as stated in the article, or my favorite, placing it on a concrete floor and flattening it with a 3 lb. sledge hammer. Pretty well gets out any aggressions that way... (Wear eye protection! Little pieces go everywhere.)
1 / 5 (1) Apr 13, 2012
Download DBAN (or something similar). Burn to CD, DVD, or USB. Boot from device, autonuke. Afterward, install any OS or none; then re-purpose it by donating it to a school or organization that desperately needs it. Please don't just stuff it in a closet or throw it away.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.