Make sure your Android phone is wiped clean before you sell it.
Every day, tens of thousands of people sell or give away their old mobile phones. We decided to buy some of these used phones to test whether they had been wiped clean of their data. What we found was astonishing: 40,000 photos including 750 photos of partially nude women and more than 250 male nude selfies, 750 emails and texts, 250 names and addresses, a collection of anime porn, a complete loan application, and the identity of four of the previous phone owners.
How did we recover so much personal data?
The problem is that people thought they deleted files but the standard features that came with their operating system did not do the job completely. The operating system deleted the corresponding pointers in the file table and marked the space occupied by the file as free. But in reality, the file still existed and remained on the drive.
Avast bought 20 used phones from eBay and discovered that lots of personal data still remained on them.
Introduction to Android forensics (aka CSI: Android)
Digital forensics is a branch of science which deals with the recovery and investigation of materials found in digital devices. Forensics is usually mentioned in connection with crime, vaguely similar to criminal investigations on TV shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and NCIS. However, several experiments (1, 2), including this one, use methods of digital forensics as proof that people do not pay attention to what happens with their personal data when replacing their digital devices (computers, hard drives, cell phones). In this blog post series we will reveal what we managed to dig out from supposedly erased devices. The sensitive information includes pictures (even very private ones!), videos, contacts, SMS messages, Facebook chat logs, Google searches, GPS location coordinates, and more.
What happens to the file when it is “deleted”?
When people want to delete a file, most will use the standard features that come with their operating system. After it’s done, they consider the unwanted data to be gone forever. However, this is not true.
The Internet has become a virtual flea market, with online consumer-to-consumer sites like Amazon, eBay, and Craigslist selling millions of products every day. Used smartphones are a popular sales item on eBay – more than 80,000 people list their phones for sale each day. It seems like a smart way to make some extra money, but AVAST has found out that many fail to protect their identity in the process.
AVAST recovers an abundance of personal data from used smartphones
Most sellers delete all of their personal data prior to selling their used devices… or so they think. We purchased 20 used Android phones off eBay and used simple and easily available recovery software to restore deleted files. The amount of data we were able to retrieve was astonishing and proves that simply deleting is not enough.
Our analysts found the following:
- More than 40,000 stored photos
- More than 1,500 family photos of children
- More than 750 photos of women in various stages of undress
- More than 250 selfies of what appear to be the previous owner’s manhood
- More than 1,000 Google searches
- More than 750 emails and text messages
- More than 250 contact names and email addresses
- Four previous owners’ identities
- One completed loan application
One phone even had a competitor’s security software installed, but unfortunately it did not help the former owner as it revealed the most personal information out of all the phones we analyzed.
No one cares about my old photos, messages and Google searches, right?
Wrong! As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Now add private Facebook messages that include geo-location, Google searches for open job positions in a specific field, media files, and phone contacts. Put all of these pieces together to complete the puzzle and you have a clear picture of who the former smartphone owner was. Stalkers, enemies, and thieves can abuse personal data to stalk, blackmail and steal people’s identities. They can use this information to watch people’s every move, exploit their strange fetishes, open credit cards in their name, or even continue what they started by further selling their personal information online.
How to permanently delete and overwrite data from your Android phone
Deleting files from your Android phone before selling it or giving it away is not enough. You need to overwrite your files, making them irretrievable. To do so, install avast! Anti-Theft from the Google Play Store for free. Once you have the app installed, turn on the “thorough wipe” feature within the app. You will then need to create a my.avast account to connect to the phone (this allows users to remotely wipe their phones in theft cases as well). The final step is to wipe the phone clean, which will delete and overwrite all of your personal data.
Read about our investigation:
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