According to the EPA, consumer electronics are the fastest growing source of solid waste in the nation. This should come as no surprise to anybody. Technology grows and evolves at a rate the average consumer simply cannot keep up with. For years, the adage for personal computers has been obsolete as soon as you open the box. This is now doubly true for smartphones.
During the recent launch of the iPhone 5, more than5 million phones were sold in the first weekend alone. Those 5 million phones replaced another 5 million phones the devices the users were carrying in their pockets while they were waiting in line. The majority of these old phones will be thrown into drawers, never to be used again, and will eventually wind up in a landfill. If an iPhone 6 ever comes out, those 5 million iPhone 5s will face the same fate.
An alternative to simply throwing out old technology is recycling it. This can take many forms, including selling an old smartphone or computer online, donating devices to charity, and even what the EPA calls eCycling physically reducing a cell phone or computer into biodegradable components for true green recycling. Whether you are interested in doing your part for the environment or just gaining the satisfaction that your own device isnt going to waste, the fact remains that technology stores personal information, and you definitely dont want that getting in the wrong hands.
As a matter of practice, you should always ensure your data is securely erased before giving away any electronic device, even if the eventual purpose is to eCycle it. Whether you are selling your device on Craigslist or giving it to your local charity or police department, be certain that no personal data remains. Instead of thinking nobody will bother to look for my data, create a situation where no matter what happens, there will be no personal data for anybody to find.
For hard drives, this process is more involved than just reinstalling the operating system. Youll need to use a forensic wiping tool to clean every bit on that drive. For smartphones, no such tools exist yet, but most personal data can be erased by taking it to your carrier and asking for a factory reset. A determined attacker may still be able to get some information from the deleted space on your phone, but a factory reset should still be the absolute minimum effort invested on your part.
For those who are considering recycling an old computer, obtaining a forensic wiping tool is easier than it sounds. A free tool called Dariks Boot and Nuke (DBAN) is available at www.dban.org, and using it is pretty straightforward. First, download the .iso file from the website. Next, use your favorite CD-burning software to burn that .iso to a disc. Finally, reboot the machine with the disc in your CD drive. If your computers boot order is set to boot from a CD before any attached hard drive (as it should be), youll see the DBAN software with simple instructions to wipe your hard drive.
Recycling is a noble endeavor, but that alone doesnt protect you from the bad guys. By erasing your data, you ensure that your good deed doesnt turn into a bad case of identity theft.
NEAL CUSTER: President of Reveal Digital Forensics & Security, a subsidiary of Custer Agency Inc. Adjunct professor at Boise State University. firstname.lastname@example.org. Written in collaboration with Reveal information security expert Dylan Evans.