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How to Protect Data When Donating or Recycling Devices

[Image source: Deposit photos]

In today’s world, replacing and upgrading old devices every few years has become almost second nature to the modern consumer. 

With each passing year, slimmer, faster, shinier, and more innovative smartphones, tablets, computers, game consoles, and other devices hit the market, exciting the ‌5 billion worldwide consumers eagerly anticipating their next upgrade option. 

Despite this, it’s astounding how many consumers are blinded by trends and fail to consider the fact that their old devices still have years left in them. Not to mention the environmental and social issues of upgrading to a brand-new model without prior consideration for the old device’s waste. This vicious cycle has continued for some time now and is, frankly, unsustainable in the long run.

Recycled or Donated Devices Pose Security Concerns if Not Wiped

Unfortunately, this trend has persisted for some time now, as manufacturers have made it so difficult to repair devices that replacing them is easier and more efficient, further contributing to the already dire e-waste problem and wider climate crisis. Thankfully, more consumers are waking up to these issues, instead opting to donate, resell, or recycle devices for less fortunate communities, without the infrastructure blessed upon many regular users. 

However, while this has shown signs of promise, donating or recycling devices improperly still occurs, where users fail (knowingly or unknowingly) to take proper precautions surrounding the stored data, information and details on them. Failing to take essential steps before sending devices to be donated can have serious privacy and security consequences, with stored sensitive data potentially being compromised and exploited.

As individuals and as a community concerned about sustainability, the environment, and upholding data integrity, it’s our responsibility to be vigilant about sanitising our old devices before passing them along. This short guide will cover the most prominent data risks when donating or recycling devices, how to securely and efficiently wipe data, and how to donate tech responsibly.

The Dangers of Donating or Recycling Devices with Data

Donating or recycling phones, computers, tablets, and other electronics comes with a risk of sensitive personal or financial data ending up in unexpected places, if this information is not securely wiped. While the chances of your data falling into the wrong hands are low if you go through the proper channels, such as Community TechAid’s prerequisite checks, it can still happen.

Names, addresses, passwords, and bank details that are saved in a device’s memory could allow a new user to steal and misuse them fraudulently. More sophisticated attacks and data breaches could happen for business phones and devices, thus compromising client, investor, or even stakeholder data if not adequately secured. Companies without proper incident response procedures will be particularly vulnerable and will face challenging recovery journeys.

What’s more, malicious users in possession of an older device full of exploitable data could commit a range of financial fraud activities. Bank account details, logins, and credit card info could be used to steal assets or funds, and make illegal transfers without raising any suspicion, as the device could perhaps be ‘trusted’.

Similarly, photos, messages, emails, browsing history, health information, and other personally identifiable information, containing highly private data, can fall into the hands of strangers. Who knows what their intentions may be should they gain access to this information?

Reputable charities and recyclers may attempt to wipe devices and destroy residual data, but many may lack the technological expertise, resources, or processes, to cleanse every donated device before passing it along to be redistributed. Therefore, the safest and most sensible option is for device owners to securely wipe their devices before sending them for donation or recycling. 

How to Securely Wipe Personal Info from Devices

Contrary to popular opinion, removing all sensitive personal information from a phone, tablet, or computer involves more than deleting all visible files and apps. There are a few essential steps to properly sanitise all data stored deep within the device’s internal storage, which can be hard to find, particularly for the less-tech-savvy among us.

Follow these steps before passing your device to someone else:

  • Back up your data: Create backup files of all your messages, photos, videos, documents, contacts, and important files to an external storage system like an HDD or SSD drive, or an encrypted, private cloud storage system. There are plenty of accessible free options for this, but you may have to pay for additional storage space if you use all your allocation.

  • Delete content: Manually delete as much content off your device as possible, particularly accounts, apps, files, browsing history, emails, contacts, and messages you don’t need anymore.

  • Sign out of accounts: Ensuring you are signed out of any associated accounts on the device is equally important. This includes accounts such as Google, iCloud, as well any other accounts that are linked to the device’s operating system or manufacturer services. Failure to do this will result in the device still being locked to the original account, regardless of a factory reset, and rendering the device unusable for a new user.  

  • Factory reset: Complete a full factory reset of the device to restore it to its default factory conditions, to scrub all the hidden system data that you may fail to spot.

  • Wipe the device: Use a disk-wiping tool to overwrite all storage sectors and remove all traces of recoverable data.

  • Encrypt the device: Finally, enable ‌full disk encryption of the freshly wiped device to mask any potential residual data remnants. This will effectively lock the device until a new owner resets it with their own credentials.

For most consumers with one personal device, a full factory reset and removal of the SIM card might be sufficient. However, as we’ve outlined, it is vitally important everyone completely signs out from accounts. Similarly, if any highly sensitive client or business data has been handled on your device, a more advanced drive sanitisation will need to be performed, to provide much more reassurance while reducing third-party risks. In many cases, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Safe and Responsible Technology Donations

With the world becoming increasingly digitised with each passing day, safely donating functional technology is vital to helping empower disadvantaged groups, and bridge the digital divide.

Responsible data protection allows more quality devices to reach families and individuals in charities, schools, care homes, and other facilities without worrying about the exploitation of new users.

Supporting non-profit organisations like Community TechAid is a productive and fulfilling way to ethically and securely distribute devices still in good working condition to groups in need. Rather than risk improperly discarding devices yourself, take advantage of programmes like ours to donate devices to people who desperately need them. 

If devices are rendered unusable, recycling them responsibly is a recommended option, as this prevents them from ending up in landfill sites and further compounding the growing issue of e-waste.

The Next Stage in the Circular Economy

There’s no denying the crucial roles that technology plays across all parts of society, and the greater influence that it could have in the coming years. However, we mustn’t let ourselves be carried away, and remember those less fortunate. 

By participating in sustainable and ethical technology reuse programmes, you’ll be promoting digital inclusivity. Taking proactive steps to safeguard personal information before passing along devices protects both you and the new user while encouraging the ethical circulation of technology vital for education, employment, health and well-being. 

So take action now, join the movement for sustainable technology, reuse and help bridge the digital divide by supporting our work at Community TechAid. Together, we can ensure functional devices reach those in need while safeguarding our data and planet. Your actions matter so let’s make a difference - one device at a time.

Written by Annie Button


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