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Secrets spilled from one in five mobile devices

Research sponsored by Sims Lifecycle Services has shown that organisations are still disposing of their gadgets without removing personal information. The findings, achieved when researchers screened a collection of second-hand phones and PDAs bought from on-line auction sites to determine what sensitive information they contained, come at a time when identity and data loss figure prominently in the media.

Conducted by the University of Glamorgan, its researchers bought 160 handheld devices and tested them to discover the types of sensitive information being discarded. The information recovered was startling, with Smartphones such as PDAs and Blackberrys offering up the most information about their previous owners. Almost half of these devices contained information specific enough that individuals or organisations could be easily identified, creating a substantial security threat to both that person or the organisations involved.

The results of information taken from standard mobiles phones also gave cause for concern. Over twenty per cent of those analysed still contained enough data to allow the researchers to identify the phone's previous owner and employer – exposing the user to possible identity fraud.

Jon Godfrey, spokesperson for Sims Lifecycle Services, has called on organisations to be more aware when disposing of their old phones or PDAs. “Due to the complex nature of modern day devices, it is imperative that due care is taken to ensure that any personal data is removed before parting with the device – whether it's a personal phone or a company owned device. In our experience, the majority of organisations simply give away their old equipment to staff or to charities when they come to the end of their life. Many forget that after it leaves the charge of their company, they no longer have any control on where it goes and to whom. This has to change.”

Godfrey continues: “During the research, we were astounded by the information we were able to access. Indeed, on one Blackberry, we were able to recover the owner's bank account details and other information including details about their children, marital status, addresses, appointments and addresses for the owner's dental and medical care providers.

“As the device was used for business, we also gained access to business secrets such as the business plan of the organisation for the next period, the identification of its main customers and the state of its relationships with them. Unbelievably, the device in question belonged to the EMEA sales director of a major Japanese corporation.”

The Sims Lifecycle Services research highlights that many organisations are still unaware of the dangers that not properly disposing of their old devices can bring and are not taking precautions to keep sensitive information safe. “Organisations must change their approach,” concluded Godfrey. “While most of these devices are replaced every few years, organisations must move away from seeing the units as waste. Just because they might not have a residual value, doesn't mean they have no worth – the information they hold is extremely valuable, especially in the wrong hands.”

Sims Lifecycle Services has set up a dedicated information helpline for businesses that want to ensure that old mobile devices are disposed of in a data secure way. Organisations can call 0845 2702477 where they can speak to an expert on safe device disposal. Sims Lifecycle Services is part of the Sims Group – the world's largest recycling company – and operates across the UK with facilities in Newport, Manchester and Dumfries.

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