Resetting your Android Phone Before You Sell It

Posted by bmedia on Sunday, June 14, 2015

This is important right? We’ve all heard how you should clear your cell phone before you sell it by resetting to the factory default. But that doesn’t always clear all your data as this article from Consumer Reports says:

One day soon you may want to trade in your smartphone for a newer, better model. And before you do, you’ll want to delete all your photos, e-mails, app accounts, and other personal data—anything you wouldn’t want to get into a stranger’s hands.

The standard advice is to do a factory data reset, which you can access in the phone’s Settings menu. The name implies that hitting reset will take your phone back to the clean, data-free state it was in when it left the factory. But that’s not quite true, at least on an Android phone. Hitting the reset button is like clicking “empty trash” on a desktop computer. The data may still be there, but there’s no longer a file name pointing to it, and the space it is occupying is now free for the next bit of data that comes along looking for a home.

For that reason, a skilled technician often can recover data from an Android phone that has gone through a factory reset. Steve Hruska, a hardware R&D engineer at a data-recovery service called Kroll Ontrack, does this for a living. He rescues files from devices that would otherwise have been lost to floods, fires, even fits of rage. (It’s an expensive service—Kroll Ontrack’s fees start at $500.) This is good if you’ve broken your device, but bad if you’re trying to sell it.

There are three steps you can take to make your data harder to recover.

Step 1: Encrypt your phone

The simplest method is to encrypt your phone. Newer Apple phones and Blackberries encrypt their data by default, which boosts security throughout the life of the device. If you’ve got an Android phone, go to Settings, then tap Security, then Screen Lock or Encrypt Device. Create a PIN or password, if you haven’t done that already. Then, encrypt the device. Just remember to plug in your phone to its charger first, as the process can take more than an hour, depending on your hardware. Ideally, you’d encrypt your phone the day you bring it home from the store, in case it’s ever lost or stolen. But if you want to safely sell your phone, encrypt it before doing a factory reset.

Surprisingly, this step may not make your phone as secure as you’d like, according to Hruska. “Even on an encrypted Android phone, a factory data reset performed via the OS can leave behind the encryption keys that would allow someone to recover files,” he says. The details vary depending on the specific Android device you own—and, by the way, there’s some inconsistency in Apple devices, as well. On some of Apple’s devices, a factory reset will delete the encryption keys necessary to read the data, while on other devices the data will be overwritten with dummy data.

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