How to Stop Data Thieves From Stealing Information Off Your Old Gadgets

Considering our collective thirst to upgrade to the latest shiny gadget, it’s not surprising that consumer electronics generate a nasty amount of waste—some 3.4 million tons of e-waste year. We are device-gobbling monsters who grow strong on the gleaming newness of our machines. But tossing out “old” devices creates an overlooked hazard.

You might think that cracked iPhone 3GS is literal trash, but the private details of your life can be another man’s treasure. If smartphones and computers aren’t properly recycled, the information stashed in our trashed electronics can be enormously valuable for dumpster-diving data thieves in the habit of hawking personal info.

Sure enough, many electronics recycling programs aren’t properly protecting digital detritus, dumping e-waste in startlingly irresponsible ways. Our discarded devices are often exported and siphoned into literal dumps, flooding Ghanian and Chinese landfills with unwiped hard drives. This provides desperate thieves with centralized collection areas to rifle through.

And they have, as Idaho Power Company found out the bad way in 2006, when sensitive corporate data wound up on eBay after an e-waste job gone wrong. The company participated in a hard drive recycling program but failed to scrub the drives before giving them to the salvage vendor. The salvage vendor also neglected to wipe the drives, resulting in hundreds of drives popping up on eBay still chock-full of confidential employee information and proprietary memos.