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Smartphones and tablets disposal and recycling: How to protect your data on mobile devices [part 2/3]

In the first part of this article we have highlighted how much information can be found in our smartphones and tablets and the danger of leaving unrestricted access to these data when we decide to sell or dispose of our device. Obviously there is a need to permanently delete the data as the only way to ensure their own protection.

In this second post we will show how you can protect your data and go through what methods you can use to erase your data.

Where data are stored

First of all, you should know that there are different types of memory in mobile devices that retain our data. We can identify three main kinds:

  • the memory of the SIM card (Subscriber Identity Module)
  • the external memory namely removable
  • the internal memory namely incorporated (embedded) in the electronics of the device

Some tips on how to erase data on the device memories

SIM card

The memory provided by the SIM card is the smallest, typically of some tens of KB even if the most recent SIM cards feature a capacity of 256KB since they are meant to offer additional services. In most cases within this memory stores:

  • basic elements of the phone book (such as names and phone numbers)
  • SMS text messages
  • call lists

External Memory

This memory is much bigger than a SIM card and generally internal memory. External memory stores a large part of our data especially if we have configured this memory space by default for saving photos, email, video and other content.

Smartphones and tablets are normally equipped with a slot to add external memory, generally microSDs, so you can remove the card before disposing of your phone or tablet. Unless there is non-standard type of file system in use, the microSD where you stored music, photos, videos, and documents will be readable without any problems on the new device. Normally, microSDs are formatted by the terminals in FAT32 and this ensures good compatibility between different devices.

If we want to use the current memory card on the new device you don’t need to worry about erasing it but instead we should remember to remove it from our tablet or smartphone before handing it to the buyer or trading it in.

Internal memory

In this case there are flash memory chips embedded in the device that are not removable. One solution is to remove the data using the default function provided by the device: the Restore Factory Settings or Factory Reset option.

This feature has been designed to restore the machine to its initial conditions. It’s a very useful tool especially in case you need to solve problems that may arise during the use of a smartphone or tablet for example if the device frequently locks or if over time the operation has become less smooth and responsive.

Resetting the phone and bringing it back to factory condition will restore the initial configuration determined by the manufacturer, resulting in the solution of the problem. It is important to remember that the factory reset option is designed to reset the device’s settings, not it’s memory (even though in some instances this does happen).

Many users find that this option also helps to permanently remove data from memory but the erasure often may not be definitive. The data may no longer be visible on the phone but it might be possible to recover it, for example with data recovery software.

The method that is definitely more effective is the use of software running a complete overwriting (wiping) of the device. This deleting function is sometimes implemented by the producers themselves.

However, if this software may be suitable for smartphones and tablets used for personal use, the same cannot be said for mobile devices used by companies: these erasure utilities provide no verifiable reports stating the Serial Number of the deleted device or other details of the hardware: this often does not allow the company to demonstrate its compliance with the rules about personal data protection – national laws on Privacy – or internal audits.

In these scenarios there is the need of advanced solutions for secure erasure able to provide organisation the necessary tools to set up a real procedure of data erasure on tens or hundreds of smartphones and tablets. If a company needs to verify its erasures and erasure procedures it is advisable to either use a specialised software solution which can offer that ( e.g. Blancco Mobile or Hosted Erase by Kroll Ontrack) or the devices should be brought to a service provider, who offers the service of fully and securely erase mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets and others to come…

In the next and last part of this article series, we want to give you more tips on what to pay attention to regarding your data security, if you want to dispose or sell a mobile devices.

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