AOH :: ISN-2943.HTM

Cell phones won't keep your secrets

Cell phones won't keep your secrets
Cell phones won't keep your secrets 

August 30, 2006

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The married man's girlfriend sent a text message to
his cell phone: His wife was getting suspicious. Perhaps they should
cool it for a few days.

"So," she wrote, "I'll talk to u next week."

"You want a break from me? Then fine," he wrote back.

Later, the married man bought a new phone. He sold his old one on
eBay, at Internet auction, for $290.

The guys who bought it now know his secret.

The married man had followed the directions in his phone's manual to
erase all his information, including lurid exchanges with his lover.  
But it wasn't enough.

Selling your old phone once you upgrade to a fancier model can be like
handing over your diaries. All sorts of sensitive information pile up
inside our cell phones, and deleting it may be more difficult than you

A popular practice among sellers, resetting the phone, often means
sensitive information appears to have been erased. But it can be
resurrected using specialized yet inexpensive software found on the

A company, Trust Digital of McLean, Virginia, bought 10 different
phones on eBay this summer to test phone-security tools it sells for
businesses. The phones all were fairly sophisticated models capable of
working with corporate e-mail systems.

Curious software experts at Trust Digital resurrected information on
nearly all the used phones, including the racy exchanges between
guarded lovers.

The other phones contained:

* One company's plans to win a multimillion-dollar federal
  transportation contract.

* E-mails about another firm's $50,000 payment for a software license.

* Bank accounts and passwords.

* Details of prescriptions and receipts for one worker's utility

The recovered information was equal to 27,000 pages -- a stack of
printouts 8 feet high.

"We found just a mountain of personal and corporate data," said Nick
Magliato, Trust Digital's chief executive.

Many of the phones were owned personally by the sellers but crammed
with sensitive corporate information, underscoring the blurring of
work and home. "They don't come with a warning label that says, 'Be
careful.' The data on these phones is very important," Magliato said.

One phone surrendered the secrets of a chief executive at a small
technology company in Silicon Valley. It included details of a pending
deal with Adobe Systems Inc., and e-mail proposals from a potential
Japanese partner:

"If we want to be exclusive distributor in Japan, what kind of
business terms you want?" asked the executive in Japan.

Trust Digital surmised that the U.S. chief executive gave his old
phone to a former roommate, who used it briefly then sold it for $400
on eBay. Researchers found e-mails covering different periods for both
men, who used the same address until recently.

Experts said giving away an old phone is commonplace. Consumers
upgrade their cell phones on average about every 18 months.

"Most people toss their phones after they're done; a lot of them give
their old phones to family members or friends," said Miro Kazakoff, a
researcher at Compete Inc. of Boston who follows mobile phone sales
and trends. He said selling a used phone -- which sometimes can fetch
hundreds of dollars -- is increasingly popular.

The 10 phones Trust Digital studied represented popular models from
leading manufacturers. All the phones stored information on "flash"  
memory chips, the same technology found in digital cameras and some
music players.

Flash memory is inexpensive and durable. But it is slow to erase
information in ways that make it impossible to recover. So
manufacturers compensate with methods that erase data less completely
but don't make a phone seem sluggish.

Phone manufacturers usually provide instructions for safely deleting a
customer's information, but it's not always convenient or easy to
find. Research in Motion Ltd. has built into newer Blackberry phones
an easy-to-use wipe program.

Palm Inc., which makes the popular Treo phones, puts directions deep
within its Web site for what it calls a "zero out reset." It involves
holding down three buttons simultaneously while pressing a fourth tiny
button on the back of the phone.

But it's so awkward to do that even Palm says it may take two people.  
A Palm executive, Joe Fabris, said the company made the process
deliberately clumsy because it doesn't want customers accidentally
erasing their information.

Trust Digital resurrected erased e-mails and other information from a
used Treo phone provided by The Associated Press for a demonstration
after it was reset and appeared empty. Once the phone was reset using
Palm's awkward "zero-out" technique, no information could be
recovered. The AP already used that technique to protect data on its
reporters' phones.

"The tools are out there" for hackers and thieves to rummage through
deleted data on used phones, Trust Digital's chief technology officer,
Norm Laudermilch, said. "It definitely does not take a Ph.D."

Fabris, Palm's director of wireless solutions, said the company may
warn customers in an upcoming newsletter about the risks of selling
their used phones after AP's inquiries. "It might behoove us to raise
this issue," Fabris said.

Dean Olmstead of Fresno, California, sold his Treo phone on eBay after
using it six months. He didn't know about Palm's instructions to
safely delete all his personal information. Now, he's worried.

"I probably should have done that," Olmstead said. "Folks need to know
this. I'm hoping my phone goes to a nice person."

Guy Martin of Albuquerque, New Mexico, wasn't as concerned someone
will snoop on his secrets. He also sold his Treo phone on eBay and
didn't delete his information completely.

"I'm not that kind of valuable person, so I'm not really worried,"  
said Martin, who runs the Web site. "I guarantee that 
three-quarters of the people who buy these phones don't think about

Trust Digital found no evidence thieves or corporate spies are
routinely buying used phones to mine them for secrets, Magliato said.  
"I don't think the bad guys have figured this out yet."

President Bush's former cybersecurity adviser, Howard Schmidt, carried
up to four phones and e-mail devices -- and said he was always careful
with them. To sanitize his older Blackberry devices, Schmidt would
deliberately type his password incorrectly 11 times, which caused data
on them to self-destruct.

"People are just not aware how much they're exposing themselves,"  
Schmidt said. "This is more than something you pick up and talk on.  
This is your identity. There are people really looking to exploit

Executives at Trust Digital agreed to review with AP the information
extracted from the used phones on the condition AP would not identify
the sellers or their employers. They also showed AP receipts from the
Internet auctions in which they bought the 10 phones over the summer
for prices between $192 and $400 each.

Trust Digital said it intends to return all the phones to their
original owners, and said it kept the recovered personal information
on a single computer under lock and disconnected from its corporate
network at its headquarters in northern Virginia.

Peiter "Mudge" Zatko, a respected computer security expert, said phone
owners should decide whether to auction their used equipment for a few
hundred dollars -- and risk revealing their secrets -- or effectively
toss their old phones under a large truck to dispose of them.

What about a case like the Lothario whose affair Trust Digital

"I'd run over the phone," Zatko said. "Maybe give it an acid bath."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.

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