Second-hand devices are an absolute privacy nightmare

Second-hand devices
(Image credit: Shutterstock / eloku)

The latest and greatest technology certainly doesn’t come cheap; a flagship smartphone, for example, will likely run you well beyond $1,000. So it’s easy to understand why many people choose to pick up devices on the second-hand market instead.

However, according to research from security company Kaspersky, pre-owned devices and storage media pose a serious threat to privacy and put a wealth of personal data at risk.

Based on a survey of 2,000 UK consumers, the report explains that the problem lies in the failure to properly erase content from laptops, tablets and smartphones before they are sold on.

In many instances, these devices are found to contain account credentials, ID cards, passport scans and other types of data that could be used to execute identity fraud. Some even contained explicit material and intimate images that could be leveraged to extort the original owner.

A quarter of second-hand desktops are said to contain photos, a fifth hold online account information and passwords and only half contain no personal data at all. And the picture isn’t any rosier when it comes to mobile devices and storage media, such as USB sticks, external hard drives and portable SSDs.

Rise of the second-hand market

The threat to privacy and data security has been exacerbated, says Kaspersky, by significant growth in the number of second-hand device sales, fueled by marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay.

“This trajectory seems unlikely to slow down considering how advanced even older devices are, and how increasingly expensive new versions are,” said the firm.

Perhaps most worrying, however, is what buyers are likely to do with personal data they discover. While many will wipe devices of their own accord, others are likely to abuse the information, the report suggests.

According to Kaspersky, 41% of respondents admitted they would take “harmful action” with the data, such as saving the information, uploading embarrassing content to social media or distributing it among friends and family. A further 14% even said they would attempt to sell the data if they believed it profitable to do so.

“The trend of not only discovering, but then accessing, viewing and even sharing data from a device’s previous owner is very worrying. It highlights the importance of vigilance throughout the lifecycle of a digital asset, right up to the moment it leaves your possession,” said David Emm, Principal Security Researcher at Kaspersky.

“The growing number of second-hand device transactions means that this concern is only going to grow unless people educate themselves on the importance of device cleansing before a sale takes place,” he added.

For users concerned about ridding their devices of all personal data before selling on, the easiest way is to restore them to factory settings. Our step-by-step guides to restoring Windows 10, macOS and iOS devices will show you how.

Joel Khalili
News and Features Editor

Joel Khalili is the News and Features Editor at TechRadar Pro, covering cybersecurity, data privacy, cloud, AI, blockchain, internet infrastructure, 5G, data storage and computing. He's responsible for curating our news content, as well as commissioning and producing features on the technologies that are transforming the way the world does business.