Selling your smartphone? Pictures, data may be retrievable - CBS46 News

Selling your smartphone? Personal pictures, data thought erased can be retrieved

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Before the end of the year, 58 million new iPhone 6 models will be sold, flooding the used cellphone market with castoffs.

But if you hand over your phone before properly erasing, everything from that naked selfie to financial information could be recovered.

We all do personal things with our smartphones, from depositing checks, to snapping family pictures. You delete the images, but are they really gone? Could someone else get your information?

"That's impossible, if I push erase, it erases everything," said Akana Tandongfor.

It wasn't impossible for software company Avast.

"Everybody who had sold their phone thought they had cleaned their data completely," said Jude McColgan, President Avast Mobile.

Avast put 20 smart phones to the test after a factory reset and recovered nearly 40,000 photos and 750 emails and texts.

"We always found personal information and in some cases we found very private photographs," said McColgan.

CBS46 put seven used cellphones to the test. We bought one from Gamestop in Smyrna, another from Express Electronics in Duluth, one from Craigslist, and several from friends and neighbors. Then CBS46 teamed up with the experts at Discovery Computers and Forensics in Marietta to see just how easy it is to retrieve erased data.

"We have to be aware that everything about our lives is on that phone," said Paul Mande, the president of Discovery Computers and Forensics.

Deleting that precious information with the erase-all data tool, standard on Android phones, isn't enough.

"We activated that… and in many cases there was still some data on the phone," said Mande.

The Samsung we bought on Craigslist was sold to us by a man, but we found Jess is the previous owner. CBS46 knows her mother's phone number, 197 other contacts, and we know she applied to work at a casino and was selling her Nissan.

"You never know who is going to use that information against you," said Mande.

We were able to stalk an Atlanta college student through 259 locations, from St. Petersburg, Florida, to 10th Street near Piedmont Park, to Springdale Road in Decatur.

It's not just what's on the phone.

"Some data is stored on the phone, some is stored on the SIM cards," said Mande.

Plug a SIM or mini SD into a computer and information can be recovered, but even worse, a factory reset may not clear them.

"Usually just break them up, take out the SIM card and throw it away in a separate trash can," said Amyna Ford.

While iPhones are thought to be more secure because of the phone's encryption and operating system, our experts were still able to access some items on the iPhone we tested.

"So it's a catch-22. The phone manufacturers try to be more secure; the tool manufacturers try and figure out a way around them," said Mande.

Which may always make it tough for users to resell their phones.

"It may be a great way to make extra money, but it's a bad way to protect your privacy," said McColgan.

If you're worried the factory reset isn't enough, here are some other steps you can take:

  • A software update before doing a factory reset ensures you have the latest security features, making the reset more reliable.
  • Enabling the encryption on newer android phones will scramble your data, but that means you have to type a PIN code every time you use the phone.
  • Avast also has a free app that overwrites all the files on your device making your personal information irretrievable before you sell or donate your phone.

Additional Information

Android v1.0 was released to consumers in 2008. Android started using dessert and confection code names in 2009 which were released in alphabetical order: Cupcake, Donut, Eclair, Froyo, Gingerbread, Honeycomb, Ice Cream Sandwich, Jelly Bean, and now KitKat. Security features were significantly improved beginning with Gingerbread. You can compare the year your phone was produced with what type of operating system it's running to see how secure your phone is.

  Code Name Release Date
4.4 Kit Kat November 2013
4.3x Jelly Bean July 2013
4.2x Jelly Bean November 2012
4.1x Jelly Bean July 2012
4.0x Ice Cream Sandwich December 2011
3.2 Honeycomb July 2011
3.1 Honeycomb May 2011
2.3.3-2.3.7 Gingerbread February 2011
2.3-2.3.2 Gingerbread December 2010
2.2 Froyo May 2010
2.0-2.1 Eclair October 2009
1.6 Donut September 2009
1.5 Cupcake April 2009

In terms of market share, Jelly Bean has now surpassed the Gingerbread as being the most used version:

  • Froyo 1.3%
  • Gingerbread 21.2%
  • Honeycomb 0.1%
  • Ice Cream Sandwich 16.9%
  • Jelly Bean 59.1%
  • KitKat 1.4%

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Jelly Bean

Jelly Bean

Jelly Bean

Ice Cream Sandwich