/ Technology

Do you always erase your personal data on old devices?

smartphone

Last year, my flat was burgled. I was only just in the process of moving in, and so they got barely anything for their efforts apart from three battered laptops. 

These machines were near relics. One hadn’t been turned on for years, the other two didn’t turn on at all. I kept them in a mix of laziness and fear that they still held fragments of data.

At some point, I intended to safely erase this data. Problem is, now I will never know where it’s gone.

Data dread

Putting aside my skittish paranoia, the likelihood is those laptops ended up in the bin. I can’t see anyone wanting to buy them, or viewing it a worthwhile endeavour to recover the hard drives.

However, I’m kicking myself that I didn’t just wipe the machines when I had the chance, and maybe even sold them when they did have some value.

Even those who do sell their devices don’t always wipe them.

In 2014, researchers at security firm Avast extracted a mind-boggling 40,000 photos from just 20 Android phones it bought on eBay, including over 1,000 featuring nudity.

Our investigation into deleting personal data

As featured in the latest edition of Which? magazine, we sent Android and iOS smartphones and tablets, along with PC and Mac laptops, off to specialist data recovery lab, Kroll Ontrack, to see what data was left on them.

The good news is the majority of devices in our snapshot research were clear of data. However, a few still had personal emails, photos, text messages and documents left on them. It was clear that they hadn’t been wiped properly.

You can make hundreds of pounds selling an old phone, tablet or laptop, so it’s a great thing to do when you’re ready to upgrade.

Just follow our guide to ensure an Android, iOS, Mac or PC gadget is wiped so you aren’t left with a lingering sense of data dread.

Have you sold on a device? Was deleting personal data upmost in your mind? Or have you bought a second-hand gadget and found information or photos left on it?

Comments

My “old devices”, including hard drives, get retired with a very large mallet followed by a dunking in engine oil. They are never, ever, sold.

I have sometimes acquired 2nd hand devices with previous users’ data on them.

If am I selling, or giving away, old devices, I usually do my best to wipe any data off them.

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It’s amazing that many still believe that simply deleting files will destroy them.

Were applicable, old hard drives are removed and placed in a portable caddy.

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I have re-formatted a one or two hard drives with a lump hammer but have quite a collection of old laptops and external hard drives going back to the 90s. One of the reasons I hold on to the laptops is because newer computers can’t open some of the old files.

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Especially when you go back and have a second go …… and a third just to be sure. 🙂

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Where you have full (or enough) control of your PC(s), you can always opt to have all your files or you entire disc fully encrypted.

This is likely to make it impossible for any casual recipient (of cast off or purloined devices) to read any of your files. Any paranoid readers may wish to consider that the security services might be able to crack some of the less complex encryption schemes.

The downside to using encryption is that you may need to keep separate copies of your passwords and/or encryption keys elsewhere. Otherwise, if your PC fails but its disc is still OK, you won’t be able to easily recover your data on another PC.

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I join the destruction brigade and never part with any computer type product until the storage system
has been removed. If I can’t identify where that is, in something solid state, the appliance gets mashed before going to the skip. I usually take the “useful” information from the old device and put it on the new one as a file in memory. I access this far less than I thought I might, but the old photos and creative writing can not be replaced. One day I’ll find time to weed out the junk and put the rest on a stick in some kind of order….one day. Slightly off topic, I am still shocked at the vast mountains of discarded electronics that have ended up in China and the awful sight of individuals taking bits and knocking off the precious metals for a living. It brings back memories of Dickens and the dust mountains in “Our Mutual Friend.” We really know how to pollute our world.

Should we not be advised to wipe data when buying or taking over second-hand computers or gadgets? They could contain illegal images or show access to illegal material on the internet, and it may be very difficult, or even impossible, to prove that this was nothing to do with yourself, in case of a police investigation.

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Well, the photos or access logs will be dated, so you wouldn’t have a lot to worry about. But given the low cost of HDs, now, I’d err on the side of caution and simply install new drives. I re-use all old drives until they’re failing, then physically dismantle them and render the platters incapable of being read.

Can you really be sure that the dates etc will be correct? Occasionally, my own computers dates have reset itself to a different year/time.

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Ing-Marie: while it’s true that dates might be incorrect, modern computers depend for their overall functionality on correct and accurate dating and actually altering the attributes can interfere with other aspects of the system. However, overall you’re right: they can be altered.

Thanks for reply, Duncan. I’m on a new computer now, because I just gave up on getting the old one back to usable and that was the one where the date got reset. I actually put the main problem down to the Windows 10 Anniversary update. A number of drivers on my PC weren’t compatible, apparently. I eventually manage to do a factory reset, but then I got a hard drive error warning, was unable to open Windows, again, and by that time, I’d had enough! The idea of virus did enter my mind, and maybe it was both a driver problem and a virus. I can’t remember if I just had the security that comes with Windows 10 (I had upgraded from 8.1) or if I had installed a security suite.

I would need to do some further training to manage that, Ian!

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It’s not hard, Ing-Marie. You do need a specialist tool kit to open the old drive, but once in a hammer and pliers quickly render the platters (where the data’s stored) utterly unusable.

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“it may be very difficult, or even impossible, to prove that this was nothing to do with yourself, in case of a police investigation.”

er, hold on a moment, whatever happened to “innocent until proven guilty” ???

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I think that your life can be shredded into little bits, while “innocent until proven guilty”.

That’s both concise and totally accurate.

Quite so, and under the ancient doctrine we are only “presumed” innocent until proven guilty, in other words whoever accuses us can believe we are guilty but the court has to give us the presumption of innocence in order for the case to proceed. But nobody comes out of a trial as innocent – the best you can get is “not guilty”.