Sun, Sep 28, 2008 - Page 13 News List

Who has your old phone’s data?

Millions of mobile phones are lost and discarded every year, yet their owners give little thought to the sensitive information they contain

By Pete Warren  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

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Three years ago, Graham Clements — the European managing director of the UK subsidiary of the Japanese packaging multinational Ishida — decided to get rid of his BlackBerry and passed it on to his IT department for recycling. At the start of this month, that BlackBerry was one of the top items on the agenda at the first board meeting that Clements had called since his return from holiday — because it, and the data on it, had come back to haunt him.

Instead of being recycled, the BlackBerry, like millions of other mobile devices every year, had been passed on to a company to be sold. On Clements’s device were business plans, details of customer relationships, information on the structure of the company, details of his bank accounts and details about his children.

And Clements isn’t alone. It’s almost impossible for the average person to wipe a mobile phone clean: unlike a PC, which has an open architecture, mobile phones are closed books in terms of where data resides. “It has taken us over a year to get talks going with Nokia that now allows us to wipe their phones,” says Jon Godfrey, director of Sims Lifecycle Services, which recycles mobiles. “We have to go through a different process with each manufacturer. To wipe it, you have to be able to access all the memory — and manufacturers don’t want you to do that for all sorts of commercial reasons.”

Yet, in the UK for instance, every six months 63,000 phones and around 6,000 PDAs are left in cabs in London alone. At the city’s Heathrow airport, 10 phones are handed in every day; one in four has no security and can be turned on by staff. Furthermore, the security of the data on those devices is the responsibility of the person who put it on the phone. It is not illegal to read it; it is up to you to protect it.

The case of Clements is not unique. That BlackBerry was among several that were recovered from mobile phone recycling companies as part of a study into data loss on mobile devices by BT (formerly British Telecom), Glamorgan University, Australia’s Edith Cowan University and Sim Lifecycle Services. It was intended to demonstrate just how much data a mobile device can collect about you. For as Clements discovered, we very quickly create intensely personal relationships with these devices.

Just how personal those relationships can be was shown by one BlackBerry recovered in Australia. It revealed that its owner, a businessman, lived in an upmarket part of Sydney. It also contained the details of his various businesses, including bids and contracts under negotiations, uncomplimentary comments about employees, an extensive list of contacts and a complete log of phone calls and diary commitments. It even held extensive and lurid exchanges between the man and a woman he was conducting a clandestine affair with.

With government departments losing laptops and discs teeming with information seemingly every week, it is easy to forget how much data is held on our PDAs and phones. The problem is that very few of us take any care to secure them against loss or theft.

Over the next few years, the phone industry hopes to tempt us with new devices that will be able to hold huge amounts of information, while the financial services industry aims to turn mobiles into payment devices that incorporate credit cards. Nearly all of them are designed so they can be linked to a computer to exchange and back up data or music. When they do, virtually by default, they will exchange information from your address book and your diary.

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