Special Report: Keeping Personal Information on Cell Phones Private, Safe

By: Brian Johnson Email
By: Brian Johnson Email

A cell phone is no longer just a device used to call or text people. We use them as pocket sized computers, depositing checks, booking hotels, sending emails, and sharing pictures. When you buy a new cell phone, what happens to the gigabytes worth of data stored on the old one? Is the information safe or could it be compromised?

"Most people do not remove the data from their phone," said Jeff Kaiser is a cell phone information security professional and the director of quality at ReCellular.

ReCellular is the largest cell phone recycler in Michigan. "Frequently people trade in their phone, so they leave everything on their phone that you would think would be on a phone, images, contacts, text messages, voice mail," said Kaiser.

Some even leave social security, bank account numbers and other sensitive information. Making things worse, many people don't even have a passcode that protects that private information if the phone were to get lost or stolen. Others sell, trade in or donate their phones without taking their personal information off the phones, but there are ways to keep that information safe.

If you trade in your phone at carriers like Verizon or other retail stores like Best Buy, employees will scrub the data from the phone.

Many of those phones end up at places like ReCellular.

"We are the largest customer of the Dexter Post Office by a great, great deal," said Kaiser as he gave New Ten's Brian Johnson a tour of the building. ReCellular is located a few miles from Ann Arbor.

ReCellular on average receives between 2-300,000 cell phones every month. "They come in on pallets and skids, from carriers," said Kaiser.

No matter what the phones have on them when they come in, they all get cleaned of their data.

"Even if the device is sent to us from a source that removes the data in advance, we again repeat that process," said Kaiser.

ReCellular removes 150 different types of data, even data that's not linked to consumers in any way. Other cell phone recycling companies have similar procedures.

"The entire industry is very actively working to protect consumer data, to protect consumer identity and to remove data, quickly and successfully," said Kaiser.

After removing all data and cleaning the outside of the phone, every phone gets audited.

"We actually audit 100 percent of the devices to make sure that data has been removed from the device," said Kaiser.

But what happens to all the phones sold and bought on using web sites like Craigslist and ebay?

"If I was directly selling my phone I would definitely remove the data," said Kaiser. "There's a slightly greater risk because it's a one-to-one relationship. You know who I am and you know where I live, and so if there is data on there, perhaps it's more usable."

If you want to make sure all the data is off your old phone before you get rid of it, most smart phones come with a factory reset, which takes everything off the phone.

Kaiser says it's also a good idea to remove the SD and SIM cards from the phone. He also advises people to contact their carrier and shut off the phone's signal.

"The same kind of cyber protection you would use elsewhere in your life applies to your phone as well," said Kaiser.

He said he chooses not to keep his bank account number or other sensitive information on his phone.

"In major cities theft is becoming a very prevalent problem, and that's probably more likely where data that's important might be captured is if you loose your phone or your phone is stolen," said Kaiser.


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