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Sell Your Device, Not Your Data, on eBay (cont'd)

Devices affected by personal and sensitive data risks

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Sell Your Device, Not Your Data, on eBay (cont'd)

Selling a device you haven't properly erased is like sending an open safe full of your personal data to your buyer.

Image: Goosey / Dreamstime

The list of affected devices—devices that can contain residue of your personal information once you're done using them—is regrettably long:

  • Computers of all kinds. Any desktop computer, laptop computer, notebook computer, mobile PC, ultra-mobile-PC, ultrabook, netbook, or any other kind of device that runs a variant of Windows, Mac OS, Linux, or similar will collect and store your data as long as you use it.
     
  • Storage devices and hard drives. This means things like portable external hard drives, bare internal hard drives, flash drives and thumb drives, and anything else that is or can be used for storing data.
     
  • Mobile phones of all kinds. This list includes iPhones, Blackberries, Android phones, Windows phones, and all similar "smart" phones, but it also includes nearly any "dumb" phone manufactured over the last twenty years.
     
  • Gaming consoles with network connectiity. Most gaming consoles that have network connectivity also involve accounts, funds, passwords, and online activity that can be traced back to you.
     
  • Tivos, PVRs, and DVRs. These video recording devices that connect to your satellite or cable television provider are actually just stripped-down computer systems with their own internal hard drives, and they behave just that way; whatever is left in them when you sell them can be traced back to you.
     
  • Other personal data management devices. In this category go tablet computers, personal digital assistants, data download and exchange devices of various kinds like voice records and photo "books" that are just hard drives in external cases, iPods and other digital music players, and so on.
     
  • Any other electronic device that needs your input. Most any other electronic device that operates on your input—and certainly those with any kind of "configuration" area or that are tied in any way to an "account"— are vulnerable. On this list are Kindles and GPS receivers, but also things like smart watches and scientific calculators.

This, experts will cry, itself is just a partial list! The moral? If it's electronic, worry that when you sell it on eBay, your data may go with it.

Cleaning Your Data Out of Your Device

Of course, the fact that these devices work with and likely collect your data isn't alone reason enough to prevent you from selling them on eBay. Most of the time, you can take steps—before you sell—to ensure that you've "cleaned" them of any data that is left on them.

Here are some of the steps you can take:

  • Factory "reset" for phones, tablets, and media devices. Most mobile phones, tablet computing devices, Kindles and ebook readers, video game consoles, Tivos, PVRs, and DVRs, GPS receivers, and similar electronic devices can undergo something called a "factory reset." Happily, this "factory reset" usually doesn't require a trip to the factory, but instead can be carried out by you, at home. The trick is to find out how to do it, since the task usually involves a particular sequence of button pushes, screen taps, or similar, followed by a warning that the device is about to be completely erased. To find out how to do a factory reset on your device, seargh Google for "factory reset" followed by the make and model of the device, i.e. "factory reset apple iphone 3gs 16gb." Then, follow the steps that you find until the device appears as it did when you first acquired it.
     
  • Reformat and/or secure erase. If you're selling a hard drive, flash drive, thumb drive, or other device capable of holding any data that you decide to copy to it from your computer, the minimum step that you need to take before selling is a "reformat" of the drive. Details can be found online to reformat a drive for Windows, Mac OS, or Linux, or you can get a computer-savvy friend to help you. Those that are more serious, however, should consider using a "secure erase" program like Eraser or File Shredder. Because these programs can be confusing, get a tech-aware assitant to help you if you feel even slightly uncertain about how to use them once installed.
     
  • Clean and/or reformat-secure erase-reinstall. Computers are generally the hardest case for most people because to erase the hard drive in the computer completely is to render it unusable unless an operating system reinstall is done, something that is beyond the realm of possibility for most computer users. On the other hand, without a complete erase, sensitive data usually continues to "lurks" in hidden nooks and crannies, even if the obvious files have been deleted. Programs like CCleaner can help here, but at the end of the day, a full reformat, secure erase, and system reinstall is safer, and should be done if you know anyone that can help you to do it.

Weigh the Risks

Of course, as security experts reading this will no doubt wish to point out, very few "secure erase" are actually completely secure; the best forensic labs in the world can recover data from almost anything. The goal here, on the other hand, isn't to outwit the CIA, but to keep your data from ending up in the hands of an eBay buyer, whether they do anything with it or not.

Nine times out of ten, the eBay buyer on the other end of your transaction doesn't care about your data. They simply want the computing, electronic, or generally gadget-rific device you're selling them, and if you didn't do a full erase or reset, no problem, since that's the first thing they'll do once they receive it.

Basic prudence suggests, however, that when you sell a device on eBay you ought to clean it up to the best of your ability, and that if you doubt your ability to clean it further, you seriously consider whether or not it's a good candidate for sale at the price you're likely to get, given the risks involved.

When in doubt, most locales have telephone shops, computer shops, or electronics repair shops that can help you to carry out these tasks for a nominal fee. It's not just your data, after all—these days, it's often your life and livelihood as well, things you don't want some malicious buyer out there thinking of as a hidden deal.

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