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Experiment finds hundreds of ‘dirty photos’ can be recovered from used phones

Published Feb 26th, 2016 7:00PM EST
Used Smartphones

Every year, thousands if not millions of consumers either sell their old smartphones for cash or trade them in for next-gen devices, whether they be new iPhones, new Samsung Galaxy models, or even new Windows Phone devices.

While this set-up between smartphone owners and trade-in companies has been mutually beneficial for years, a new study finds that it’s remarkably easy to access personal and sensitive data from old smartphones. Recently, Avast Software purchased 20 used smartphones from pawn shops across 4 worldwide cities – New York, Paris, Barcelona and Berlin. Following that, a free software recovery tool was used to determine what type of private information happened to be retrievable, and the results should be quite concerning for anyone looking to part with their existing device.

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On the 20 used smartphones alone, multitudes of personal information was uncovered, including more than 200 adult photos, 1,200 personal photos, 149 photos of children in particular, invoices, more than 300 emails and text messages, and “one very adult video.” What’s more, two of the purchased devices contained personally identifiable information, thus making it easy to map the contents of a particular phone to a specific person.

“On two of the phones,” the press release notes, “the previous owners had forgotten to log out of their Gmail accounts, risking having the new owners read or send emails in their name.”

Even more worrisome is that not all of the devices in question had even been subject to a factory reset, despite claims to the contrary from pawn shop owners. Furthermore, even devices that were ostensibly wiped clean were found to contain sensitive information.

Of the phones that were factory reset, 50 percent still contained personal data as they were running an outdated version of Android that had an improperly functioning factory reset feature. Some of the previous owners only deleted their files without doing a factory reset. However, this doesn’t mean that the files were removed completely – only the reference to the file was deleted. Other phone owners simply forgot to delete their data or do a factory reset.

Notably, newer Android devices are much more reliable when it comes to erasing data with a factory reset.

The moral of the story is simple: phones today are effectively digital diaries that can sometimes contain are most sensitive information. Indeed, this is precisely why Apple is so reluctant to help the FBI create a backdoor that would enable them to bypass built-in iPhone security measures. That being the case, smartphone owners should be incredibly vigilant about ensuring that their devices are completely wiped before selling them or trading them in. Additionally, users especially worried about their data getting into the wrong hands might be well advised to only trade in their devices to reputable companies like Apple or Gazelle. In other words, you might want to steer clear of your neighborhood pawn shop.

Yoni Heisler Contributor

Yoni Heisler has been writing about Apple and the tech industry at large for over 15 years. A life long Mac user and Apple expert, his writing has appeared in Edible Apple, Network World, MacLife, Macworld UK, and TUAW. When not analyzing the latest happenings with Apple, Yoni enjoys catching Improv shows in Chicago, playing soccer, and cultivating new TV show addictions.