Smartphones and tablets disposal and recycling: How to protect your data on mobile devices [part 1/3]

29 May 2015 by Massimo Mazza


With a turnover of around two years between mobile devices, what happens to the older devices when we are finished with them? Can hackers access your data?

User interest for mobile devices is well known to smartphone and tablet manufacturers and as a result they are presenting new models more frequently to the market, characterised by increasingly sophisticated design and high advanced technical specifications.

The evolution of these devices has been impressive over the time. The first "non-smart" mobile phone was a heavy and awkward device able to perform just the function of the phone. Today, these devices are real pocket computers, always connected to the Internet; much smaller, lighter and more easily transported than laptops.

Digital storage that constantly grows and needs to be protected

According to the recent studies carried out by Gartner on the smartphone market, in 2014 the worldwide sales exceeded one billion units or, to be more precise, they reached 1.2 billion, compared to 970 million recorded in 2013, an increase of about 30%.

Tablet market, instead, performed less brilliantly: Gartner actually  reported that in 2014 they were sold 216 million units and estimated a relatively low growth for 2015 of about  233 million and for 2016 of 259 million units.

Overall, however, by 2018 more than 50% of users will use smartphones or tablets as the main device to work online.

Perhaps we as a private user do not realise and/or we underestimate the fact that within storage of our devices we now store an impressive number of information about our personal and professional life and that this data should be handled very carefully, especially when we decide to replace our device with a more beautiful and powerful one.

Recycling and disposal: the market for reconditioned devices

When we go to buy the latest model of a smartphone or a tablet, it often happens that we decide to give away or sell our old device, since it is still fully functional and perhaps used for no more than two or three years.

Though, the technological obsolescence of these tools is actually quite fast: the latest versions of operating systems often require changing the hardware and manufacturers are increasingly focusing on lightweight models with wider and higher defined screens, thus it's easier we get quickly tired of our device.

Nowadays, there are lots of people interested in getting second hand smartphones and tablets. There are some shops that buy them or offer trade-in deals upon the launch of a new device. Most of these used devices, still in excellent condition, will be technically tested to ensure they are in top shape and then they will be resold as used: the idea is good, as it allows protecting the environment and reducing the number of electronic waste.

The market of reconditioned mobile device is actually fast growing.

Gartner estimates that by 2017 it will sell 120 million reconditioned units to new users for a total sales volume of $ 14 billion. It is such an interesting growth if you consider that in 2014 Gartner had registered a volume of 56 million units and a turnover of only $7 billion.

What data do we need to protect?

Most likely, none of us would be happy to know that the buyer of our old device may have indiscriminate access to everything we had saved in our smartphone or tablet, but this is what happens if we do not bother to remove all the contents.

If we do not provide for a complete data erasure we will let anybody to see our photos, all the contacts of our agenda, SMS, email exchanges and any attached documents ... i.e. whatever it is stored in the device, even the more personal and confidential information.

At worst we could lose control of our accounts and passwords, including credit cards data that we could have associated with online purchases and saved within some apps.

It's even worth noting that some students at Cambridge university recently published a paper proving that most people's default option for mobile device data erasure - the factory reset option - didn't quite erase everything on Android devices.

For businesses, neglecting to clear all the contents of mobile devices assigned to employees could mean to leave uncontrolled access to the data of customers, suppliers as well as to risk disclosing information about contracts and projects, business secrets, email exchanges and other proprietary and confidential information.

The only way to protect ourselves and others is therefore to permanently eliminate all traces of digital data. How?

In the second part of this article we will see how to better secure our devices disposal.

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