How to properly wipe your smartphone's data

You’re ready to replace your aging smartphone with a newer model, but how do you plan on removing all the content that’s on your existing phone?

If you answered “factory reset,” here’s something you might not know: it doesn’t properly remove everything.

Insert “record scratch” sound effect here. It’s true. Restoring your phone to factory settings deletes the file system of your data, but it doesn’t actually overwrite the data.

Yep, a 14 year-old with easily-accessible software could potentially retrieve your photos, videos, documents, messages, passwords, and more.

To avoid your data falling into the wrong hands, the following are some ways to fully wipe your smartphone clean before you sell, donate or trade-in your device.

Encrypt the data

A factory reset will work, so long as you encrypt the phone first.

For Android users, if you existing phone runs Android 6.0 (Marshmallow) or newer, your data will already be encrypted by default. If you’ve got an older Android OS, you’ll want to add encryption as it will require someone to have a PIN or password to access your data.

In most cases, go to Settings > Security > Encrypt phone. It can take a while for this process to complete, so be sure to have your phone plugged into an AC outlet. On a Samsung Galaxy, you’ll go to Settings > Lock screen & security > Protect encrypted data.

You’ll have the option to encrypt the SD memory card as well, if your phone takes one and you have one installed, but you’ll likely remove this external storage anyway if you’re giving away your phone. Be sure to also sign out (and then delete) your accounts, such as Google and Samsung (on a Galaxy device), just to be safe.

Now go ahead and do the factory reset, which is usually found in the Backup & reset tab in your Settings.

For iPhone, iOS 5 or later also includes hardware encryption when you set a passcode. This makes it very difficult for anyone who tries to recover your data.

First, be sure to turn off all services, starting with Find My iPhone (Settings > iCloud > Find My iPhone), and then signing out of iCloud completely. For iOS 7 and newer, choose Delete Account. Sign out of other services, like iMessage, and Apple ID.

Now start the wipe process by going to Settings > General > Reset > Erase All Content and Settings.

Rather than use the operating system’s built-in tools, you can also download an app to handle the wipe for you. Examples include Symantec’s Norton Security, Pinellas Codeworks’ Secure Wipe, and ProtectStar’s iShredder 4, to name a few.

Remote wipe

Locking a smartphone with a PIN or password isn't enough. Instead, all phone makers include tools to remotely wipe the data from a lost or stolen smartphone.

If you misplaced our iPhone, sign into on a computer and select Find My Phone or launch Apple’s Find My iPhone app on another iOS device or on a Mac. Find My iPhone is available for free at the App Store. For both, you can see where your device is on a map, along with the date and time it was last located there, along with the phone’s current battery level. If the phone isn’t locked with a PIN, you can do this remotely. Choose the option to wipe the data clean if you don’t want to take a chance of it being accessed.

With Android, Google’s own Android Device Manager is a free download from the Google Play store. Or you can log into on a PC or Mac. For either method, you’ll first be prompted to sign into your Google account. You might have your phone ring loudly in case it’s somewhere nearby (even if it’s on silent). If it’s not nearby -- perhaps left at a coffee shop or in the car -- you can locate your Android phone on a map in real-time. Similar to iPhone, if you can’t retrieve your phone you can easily wipe all of the data on your device.

Columnist Marc Saltzman writes on tech devices and trends for USA TODAY. Follow Marc on Twitter: @marc_saltzman.


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