The Checkout

What Your Cell Says About You

As cellphone users goes, I'm pretty old school. My phone--my third in five years--has a camera, it can access the Web and it has calendar. I'm sure it has other handy features, but I just stick to the basics: talking to people and sending the rare text message. When I'm done with a phone, I usually donate it without giving it a second thought.

Lately, I had been thinking about moving up to a "smart phone" so I can have my contacts with me, check e-mail, surf the Web more easily, and maybe listen to some tunes on the way to work. But after reading Ellen Nakashima's story on Saturday about the trove of personal information you can leave behind on one of those suckers, I'm not so sure anymore how smart getting one would be. There's something to be said for not transferring your life onto a single, portable, hackable device.

The average cellphone in the U.S. gets replaced every 1.5 years, fueling a growing secondhand market on eBay. But all of those of those folks reselling their Treos and BlackBerry devices may not realize what they're giving away. Even if you make a point of erasing personal contacts, pictures, and Web search terms, all of that information can be recovered.

This is what Trust Digital, a McLean mobile security firm, concluded in August after conducting a little experiment. The company bought 10 used smart phones off of eBay to see what they could recover from them.

Trust Digital ended up with nearly 27,000 pages of personal and business information from nine of them. (The 10th had never been used.)

The company unearthed personal banking and tax information, corporate sales activity notes, corporate client records, product roadmaps, contact information, phone and Web logs, calendar entries, personal and business correspondence, computer passwords, and prescription information.


According to Ellen, when you think you're erasing your contacts, pictures and old text messages, the phone operating system actually doesn't delete it. It merely "dereferences" it. That means it just gets rid of indicators that tell you where to find the information, but the data is all still there.

From text messages recovered from one of the cellphones Bought on ebay, Trust Digital gleaned the former owner was having an extramarital affair. Law enforcement have already begun using discarded cellphones to nab criminals.

The problem of recoverable data won't be limited to smart phones for long. As all cellphones become more advanced, they'll come with more smart phone-like features and become more integral to our lives. For instance, many phones already have GPS capability that we're just beginning to take greater advantage of. Soon, we'll be able to use them to buy things as well.

Before you resell or donate your phone, be sure to ask the manufacturer for advanced reset instructions. Palm apparently has a method called "zero-out reset" or "factory reset" that overwrites any remaining data with ones and zeroes--so you don't inadvertently leave a Harlequin Romance behind for would-be snoopers.

Speaking of Harlequin Romances, I wonder how long before we're subjected to a new form of fictional entertainment that comes in the form of a purportedly discarded Blackberry, which we then get to pick through to find out about its "owner." I say a year, tops.

What could a stranger learn about you from your smart phone?

By Annys Shin |  October 24, 2006; 9:00 AM ET Consumer News
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

When T-mobile replaced my Blackberry that was under warrantly they sent me a refurbished one. When I turned it on I immediately started getting e-mail......from another Tmobile user. I called them and they said that because I was receiving e-mail, the device was working and there was nothing they could do. The only way I got the situation resolved was to send an e-mail to the owner (I got the info from the device) and he called Tmobile and had a fit. If I had bad intentions, I had EVERYTHING on his device - entire address book, emails with his credit card numbers, passwords, etc.

Posted by: Lara | October 24, 2006 8:35 AM

My 'smart phone' won't reveal a thing about me because I'm smart enough not to own one. I don't even answer my phone at home, I let it roll over to the answering machine. Hell phones have got to be the most annoying inventions ever created. I have to commute daily to my job in DC on a commuter bus. Have you ever been surrounded by 5-6 annoying people on their @#*&^%# annoying hell phones, all talking at the same time, all trying to speak over the others? At 6:30 am (when I have to be on the bus) or at 5:00 pm after a long, hard day, the last thing I want to hear is a cacophony of hell phone users. I am not interested in your family problems, your money problems, your bowel problems, what you're having for dinner, what went on at the funeral, how many times you went to the bathroom today. We do not need a minute by minute narration of the ride home. "We're at Upper Marlboro, be home soon." "We just passed Waysons Corner, see you in a little bit." "We're pulling into Dunkirk, be there in about 15." And the obligatory 'I love you' after each conversation. Yeah, sure. I/We even listened to an FBI employee discussing the background checks of various applicants on a bus full of 46 other commuters. We all heard it. So unless the house is burning down or somebody just died, there's no reason for these annoying public conversations. Get over yourselves, folks. You are not that important -- or interesting.

Posted by: Southern Maryland | October 24, 2006 8:44 AM

OK, when I decide to replace my (4-year old, phone only) cell phone I'll just take the old one out in the back yard and beat it to death with a hammer, then send it to a landfill. Why replace your cell phone every 1.5 years? People seem to lose them all the time and don't care, why bother re-selling or donating? They are handy when traveling, that's all the good they are. According to today's INDEPENDENT (Brit paper) men who use their cell phones more that 4 hours a day loose quite a bit of their fertility, too. Check it out.

Posted by: Outlander | October 24, 2006 9:05 AM

I'm an Internet professional, and all my colleagues tease/berate me for owning the most basic of cell phones (no camera and it's almost an inch thick *gasp*) and using an actual bound planner. I'm sending them all this article today.

My cell phone - which I barely use anyway - contains phone numbers and the address to my business. That's about it. I never understood how people could put all of their life onto something so portable and easy to lose.

Posted by: Chasmosaur | October 24, 2006 9:06 AM

You are my hero/heroine.


Posted by: to Southern Maryland | October 24, 2006 9:06 AM

My phone has no internet access, does not text message, does not take pictures. I can make and receive calls. I will hold onto it as long as I can!!

Posted by: Old School | October 24, 2006 9:07 AM

4 hours a day? I hope they are salespeople. Otherwise--what could you possibly be doing that would necessitate you being on the phone for 4 hours?

Also, I have a razr, which I like, which has a camera and other groovy little features, but I am not understanding why you would have cc numbers on them. Someone please tell me! Thanks--Jane.

Posted by: I've lost 2, DH one. | October 24, 2006 9:10 AM

outlander, you shouldn't throw it away you have to recycle those batteries are very bad for the environment, and you can contact your provider and they should be able to show you how to zero it out.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 24, 2006 9:31 AM

I am of the old school also to the point that I am still using my Motorola "StarTac". Replaced the antenna once. If and when I get rid of it, it will go under the head of a 3# hammer.

Posted by: | October 24, 2006 9:40 AM

I wish the manufacturers would get the picture that there is a segment of the market that just wants a phone. I like having a timer and a speakerphone as well, but I can live without them. They should sell at least one model of phone that's short of bells and whistles (no Internet, polyphonic ringtones, cameras) and instead uses the battery life for actual phone conversations. It's sad watching the talk time on these phones going down as the number of gadgets increases faster than battery technology. I had a hard enough finding one without a camera (government contractor, no cameras allowed at work).

Posted by: SEP | October 24, 2006 9:44 AM

For those who want just a phone: consider a pre-paid phone. You may pay more per minute, but you only pay for what you use (which can wind up being cheaper). Plus, no contracts to deal with. They're perfect for people who think cell phones should be used primarily for emergency contact, not general gabbing.

Posted by: mizbinkley | October 24, 2006 10:16 AM

I hope this doesn't deter people from donating their used phones to charities that recycle them or give them to victims of domestic abuse and the like. That's what I do whenever I get a new phone (about every 2 years) but I always thought that when the phone was deactivated and activated under a new account all the data was erased. Now I feel really stupid. Do any of those organizations "wipe" the data when they recondition the phones? I guess the only way to be sure is to do it yourself.

Posted by: tyoon | October 24, 2006 10:34 AM

I travel 2-3 weeks every month so the cell is the most cost effective way to keep in touch with the home front. The phone is all I usually use, plus the alarm clock in hotels.

I don't need a camera, internet (have a laptop), text messaging (what a waste of time), or a detailed contact list (again, I have a laptop).

The only time I have replaced my phone was immediately after I totalled the old phone - try sitting down into a airplane seat a few times with it clipped to your belt. They don't like it too much.

I usually trash my phone every 20-22 months so I renew my plan and get new phones for my wife and myself at the same time. We get whatever the special of the month is so it doesn't cost much of anything to get two new phones and renew at the same time. I have never thrown a phone away 'cause the grandkids love to play with them. I take the batteries out and make sure they don't eat the keys off - but that's another story.

What we really need are phones that have removable memory cards - you could donate the phone and keep the card with all the info on it. The card might even work on your new phone if you stay with the same manufacture. This works great for my digital camera ... wonder why the phone manufactures haven't come up with this yet for widespread use.

Posted by: Just a User | October 24, 2006 11:23 AM

Of course, if you go to Trust Digital's website, they're happy to sell you a variety of security products. Keep in mind that their study is partially (if not mainly) promotional. It was limited to "smart" phones and blackberries, and says nothing about regular cell phones. Does the same possibility exist there? Probably, but you still need someone who wants the data. If you give your phone to a homeless shelter or to a battered women's shelter, do you think they're likely to be trying to recover your old text messages?

Posted by: ah | October 24, 2006 11:38 AM

I teach business people about technology nearly every weekday. Privacy and security issues are only the tip of the glacier. Few people really understand how technology can steal or add to the time we have to spend with our friends and families. Those who chase after the latest gadget and spend considerable time learning new features may be missing their daughter's dance recital. Employees enthralled by blackberries sometimes forget about important customers.

There is a cost in time as well as money to every new toy we invite into our homes and businesses.

My cell flip phone is 5 years old yet it places and receives calls all over the U.S. flawlessly. I still see my e-mail many times a day while it remains secure behind firewalls...

Posted by: thw2001 | October 24, 2006 11:48 AM

Thanks for this information. I'm sure adulters all over the place are running scared trying to track down their old phones!!! Try the PI your spouse hired to follow you -- they're all having a good laugh right now!!!!

No, now seriously, I really love having a cell. I've given up my house phone and we just use our cell phones. The absence of all telemarketers is wonderful. The most annoying thing about cells phone renewal however is that I have to RE-purchase the car charger or home charger. Why can't these things all be universal? The markup on these are ridiculous!!!

Just this week I called Verizon to inquire about an issue with my phone. She tried to talk me into a new Razor. Apparently the pink one costs $30+ more than the silver one!! Do they really believe that the color is harder to manufacture? I still am unable to find the ringtone for Hail to the Redskins!!!

Posted by: CJ | October 24, 2006 12:06 PM

I am totally amazed at the lack of understanding of security issues (much less privacy issues -- people broadcast *everything* about themselves in public).

Posted by: Jill | October 24, 2006 12:52 PM

"We're at Upper Marlboro, be home soon." "We just passed Waysons Corner, see you in a little bit." "We're pulling into Dunkirk, be there in about 15."

while I agree with Southern Maryland on most points, comments like the above assuming that is all that is said) are actually helpful. I can call my husband from the blue line train and tell him I am at the National Airport stop.

This tells him he has roughly 20 minutes to finish up whatever chores he might be doing and come pick me up at the metro. Saves me from driving to the metro ($3.75 to park) or waiting for the bus.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 24, 2006 1:13 PM

I read the original article on Saturday. There isn't anything in my old phone except for my contacts (phone #s for friends and family) but I don't want to give that info away to a stranger either. I tried on Saturday to go to and get the instructions to clear my phone; it kept locking up my browser (Firefox). I had no trouble today using Internet Explorer, so it's probably just be a Firefox glitch.

Posted by: Jen | October 24, 2006 2:17 PM

"What we really need are phones that have removable memory cards - you could donate the phone and keep the card with all the info on it"--Just a User

Cell phones do have removable memory cards (SMM cards), well at least the newer versions sold by cingular. This way you don't have to go through the hassle of remembering all contacts when you switch phones.

This has actually saved me recently when my screen went out!

Posted by: answers | October 24, 2006 2:29 PM

"What we really need are phones that have removable memory cards - you could donate the phone and keep the card with all the info on it"--Just a User

Cell phones do have removable memory cards (SMM cards), well at least the newer versions sold by cingular. This way you don't have to go through the hassle of remembering all contacts when you switch phones.

This has actually saved me recently when my screen went out!

Posted by: answers | October 24, 2006 2:29 PM

"What we really need are phones that have removable memory cards - you could donate the phone and keep the card with all the info on it"--Just a User

Cell phones do have removable memory cards (SMM cards), well at least the newer versions sold by cingular. This way you don't have to go through the hassle of remembering all contacts when you switch phones.

This has actually saved me recently when my screen went out!

Posted by: answers | October 24, 2006 2:29 PM

To answers:

Thanks for the info about the SMM cards - too bad that is not a standard feature for all phones from all companies. I have Verizon and I haven't seen those offered yet, but I honestly haven't looked for one too hard since I don't want to pay for the latest/greatest phone with all the other stuff in it that I don't use.

Maybe it would be even better if the removable cards could plug directly into a USB port so we can sync the contacts to our PC's. Do SMM cards do that too?

Posted by: Just a User | October 25, 2006 7:42 AM

I'm still using my StarTac too! Although I'm not going to smash it when I'm done with it...I think I'll frame it in a memory box and hang it up in my house.

Posted by: PammyK | October 25, 2006 12:23 PM

This is not good - all of my calls to and from the MobileAlibi com service could show up?

Posted by: JIm | October 25, 2006 5:16 PM

It's interesting and heartening to learn first-hand from this site that there are others who are affected by the cellphone frenzy who merely want to communicate by telephone with other humans.Good heavens! can this really be? There are actually people who don't wish to have a computer,pinball machine,gambling casino or possibly a house of ill-repute in their pocket or purse?? How do they manage to do this and still maintain a cellphone contract? I've bought my way out of three cell phone contracts for my peace of mind and sanity. Either I'm very stupid or very patient,not sure which. As long as binary pusher- addicts control net and airways we can't really expect much more than what we have. What is it that we have anyway...???

Posted by: robert beal | October 28, 2006 10:26 AM

My upgrade experience
Ha! I just canceled my month to month contract and I was going to switch over to a Nextel 2 year plan and get the motorola i930. I read an article about a company call and decided to investigate. I`m happy that I did :) I waqs able to take over someone elses contract with only 7 months left and they gave me the i930 in great condition...

Posted by: Marc Cohen | November 3, 2006 7:35 PM

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