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Updated: October 14, 2010 00:46 IST

Half of used mobiles contain personal data

Jemima Kiss
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A factory reset is the safest way to erase personal data before disposing of a handset.
AFP A factory reset is the safest way to erase personal data before disposing of a handset.

Phones being sold on eBay revealed credit card information and intimate pictures.

Consumers are unwittingly passing much of their most private personal data to strangers when they discard mobile phones, with intimate photos and credit card numbers and pins frequently left on handsets, according to new research.

An analysis of 50 handsets bought from second-hand resellers on eBay found that more than half contained personal messages or photos, according to exclusive research from the mobile and forensics experts Disklabs. More than 60 per cent still contained phone numbers left on a call log. A number were sold with pornographic material still on the phone.

“The worst thing a consumer can do is hope or assume that the person buying the phone will remove the data,” said Simon Steggles, director of Disklabs. “Any data left on the phone is effectively open to the public domain. That could be as varied as intimate photos, videos and text messages ... People hit ‘delete' and think that means it is gone for ever, but that's not the case.” Researchers found porn on nine of the 50 handsets, while video and calendar information were also still on nine handsets. Personal security information, including home address, credit card numbers and pin numbers, was on 26 of the handsets.

Nine of the handsets had had their International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number changed — indicating they had been lost or stolen at some point. When reported, lost and stolen mobiles have their IMEI cancelled, which means they can no longer connect to the network.

Mobiles store user data in different places, depending on hardware model, software and user preferences. Deleting SMS messages, for example, is unlikely to completely remove that data from the phone. Mr. Steggles said a factory reset is the safest and most reliable way to erase personal data before disposing of or selling a handset.

Mr. Steggles said consumers are often naive in their approach to personal data, a problem compounded by mobile trade-in systems, which offer money in exchange for old handsets.

The popularity of apps makes it even more important for mobile owners to properly erase their data before selling handsets. Mr. Steggles pointed to GPS-enabled apps such as RunKeeper, which logs when someone leaves their home and where they run to within a few metres. Rik Ferguson, a senior security adviser at Trend Micro, said the digitisation of people's lives makes previously unimaginable data public — such as the U.S. student's “sex log” that went viral last week.

“Data is more portable, more accessible, more widely disseminated and more numerous than ever before,” said Mr. Ferguson. “We tend to place our faith in the technology that we use to access our data, we believe that when we hit delete the data is gone, and we believe that if we restrict the audience we share with that the data will not go any further. These beliefs are often misplaced — as that story testifies.” Mr. Ferguson pointed to recent data leak scandals such as Android's TaintDroid app, which was shown to send information to advertisers without the user's knowledge, and a separate problem identified with inadequate data encryption on iPhones. Both have helped to highlight some awareness of flaws in mobile security. While apps and mobile tools are still young and developing, Mr. Ferguson says professional encryption is the safest way to protect personal data.

“We need to get in the habit of encrypting valuable personal and intellectual property at file level; that way, even if it is lost or stolen it is of limited value or use,” he said, anticipating a swathe of new services that offer encrypted services for consumers.

“What would be ideal is some sort of technology where you as an end user would be able to assign the right to use, copy or distribute information about yourself to people of your own choosing.” Meanwhile, Mr. Steggles called on mobile operators to take more responsibility in educating the public about controlling their data. “It's unfair to expect consumers to understand the possible ramifications of leaving data on their phones,” he said. “Mobile operators need to take this issue more seriously — it's shocking what some people leave on their phones.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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