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Cell Phones: Think Twice before you Toss

Mon, 11/20/2006 - 6:05am
Nancy Maas
Editor-in-Chief
Like most people today, I have a box at home filled with used cell phones, along with their chargers and accessories. Each time I drop one in the box, I say to myself — “I really should do something useful with these or, at the very least, find out how to dispose of them responsibly.”

Recently, my cell phone graveyard gained a new inhabitant. It was time again to renew my service contract for another two years, and of course, upgrade to this year’s most advanced model. This also meant that I had to follow through with my intentions and decide where and how I was going to discard my old phone. This time, however, proper disposal was a secondary concern. I do recognize that the disposing of used cell phones is a major issue in this country since there are approximately 220 million cell phone subscribers in the United States, and every day tens of thousands of toxic cell phones are being dumped into our landfills. With a little investigating on the Web, my dilemma was solved. I discovered that there are a number of reputable organizations that will recycle used cell phones in an environmentally responsible way or provide it to someone in need. In addition, all four major wireless carriers have recycling programs.

Unlike 18 months ago, I am now more concerned with the personal data I have stored on my phone (which has increased significantly over the past 18 months) and whether or not it could be recovered once it was out of my possession. My concern became a reality when I read about a company in Virginia, Trust Digital, that recently tested the security tools it sells for businesses. In the experiment, they purchased 10 smart phones on eBay, each with at least 40 megabytes of memory. Using simple software created in-house, the software experts at the company were able to retrieve information on nearly all of the used phones they purchased. The technicians recovered a variety of information — including one company’s plans to win a multi million-dollar federal transportation contract. Now that’s scary. In many cases, they were phones that whose owners had erased sensitive data before discarding; or that sellers had reset the phone, whereby all sensitive information no longer appeared. If nothing else, the company’s little experiment indicated that probably most of us have a false sense of security. It appears that simple software, which you could probably obtain over the Internet, is capable of recovering sensitive data from a used cell phone.

It's clear to me that our personal data is no longer truly under our control. It is stored on devices, third-party Web sites and on our computers. Although most smart phones sold today feature some security features, are they sufficient and do most consumers know how to use them? I doubt it on both counts.

Trust Digital recommends that cell phone owners seek advice from device manufacturers, or the carriers that sold the phone to them on how to permanently erase data. They also recommend a Web site, wirelessrecycling.com, which provides directions for erasing data from a variety of models. Rather than just toss my old phone in the box again, I think I will follow their advice and visit the Web site to find out how to successfully delete the data stored on my old phone as well as determine which organization will receive my donated cell phone.

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