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The flaw in factory resets

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A new service allows users to sell old phones and tablets but, as LIRON SEGEV reports, deleting information before selling a device does not wipe your slate clean

 

 

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Every phone and tablet has an option under Settings that allows you to Reset Phone to Factory Defaults. When activating this option the phone warns you that it will delete all your information, pics, music, e-mail, apps and everything else that you have loaded on the device. Essentially the phone is reset to the point where it came out of the factory and ready to be setup for the first time.

But is this good enough ? Is your information really deleted?

The shocking answer is: NO.

What happens when you delete ?

When we create a file, such as when we snap a new pic or create a new document, the operating system creates the file by storing it in bits and pieces in blocks on the device’s storage – be it internal phone storage or SD Card. It look similar to this:

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In order to find which blocks make up the file, the operating system creates an index which identifies the bits that make up the complete file.

When you delete a file, the operating system removes not the content inside the blocks, but removes the reference to those blocks from the Index. However all the bits in the blocks still remain on the hard drive and are marked as “free” so that new files can overwrite those bits. It’s the equivalent of removing the chapter name from the Index of the book, but still leaving the contents of the chapter inside the book – if you page through, you will find that chapter even without the index.

And this is where the problem arrises.

There are applications that allow techies to skip over the index and view the bits inside those blocks so they can recover any file whose blocks haven’t been overwritten by new files.

Does Factory Reset leaves content behind?

Yes.

This is confirmed by the team at security firm Avast, who purchased 20 phones on eBay and ran their software though them that have been reset to Factory Defaults. They discovered over 40,000 photos (yes, including those sexting pics), 750 e-mails, 250 contacts with names and addresses and various personal files.

Stefan Tanase, Senior Security Researcher, Global Research & Analysis Team, Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa, Kaspersky Lab confirms this too:

“A staggering amount of personal data is usually left on devices after a factory reset is performed. Most often these devices end up being sold on eBay(-like) websites, and might end up in the hands of someone with bad intentions, who can recover the data. Users don’t realise that they leave behind e-mails or SMS messages, contact information or even personal pictures and videos shot with the phone camera. Essentially, all data stored on the device is recoverable to some extent”

How do you do you ensure that your data is actually deleted ?

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Simply doing a factory reset clearly is not the answer. If you want to ensure that none of your sensitive pics or information land up all over the Internet, you should Encrypt your device before doing Factory Reset

This sounds very “James-Bondy” but it s a simple step that you need to do with the tool  included with your phone. When you run the encryption tool, it protects your files from prying eyes which goes a long way to stop anyone with $50 software from getting a hold of your  family pics.

Each phone manufacturer has their own way of dealing with encryption:

Obviously before engaging in this, make sure you read and understand what is involved and back up your phone (do not lose the PIN either.)

If your device doesn’t have encryption built into the settings, then you can download several applications from the App Stores that allow you to do that.

The obvious solution would be for the mobile phone manufacturers to have encryption built into their Factory Reset process, however as Stefan Tanase  points out that the mobile phone manufacturers chose not to do this because of:

1. Lack of security awareness – both users and manufacturers generally don’t realise the importance of securely erasing data.

2. Speed – erasing a storage device securely takes more time, and the reality is that most users would rather have their device quickly perform the factory reset.

The more we trust our mobile phones with out lives, the more we should be weary of just how vulnerable these devices are. We need to be more aware of the digital fingerprints we are leaving behind.

* Image courtesy of shutterstock.com

* Follow Gadget on Twitter on @GadgetZA

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ConceptD: Creatives get a tech brand of their own

The unveiling of a new brand by Acer recognises the massive computing power needed in creative professions, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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It’s a crisp Spring morning in Brooklyn. The regular water taxi from Manhattan pulls up at Duggal Greenhouse on the edge of the East River. It’s a building that symbolises the rejuvenation of Brooklyn as a hub of artistic and creative expression.

Inside the vast structure, global computer brand Acer is about to unveil its own tribute to creativity. Company CEO Jason Chen takes to the stage in faded blue jeans and brown t-shirt, underlining the connection of the event to the informality of the area.

“Brooklyn is become more and more diverse,” he tells a gathering of press from around the world, attending the Next@Acer media event. “It’s an area that is up and coming. It represents new lifestyles. And our theme today is turning a new chapter for creativity.”

Every year, Next@Acer is a parade of the cutting edge in gaming and educational laptops and computers. New devices from sub-brands like Predator, Helios and Nitro have gamers salivating. This year is no different, but there is a surprise in store, hinted in Chen’s introduction.

As a grand finale, he calls on stage Angelica Davila, whose day job is senior marketing manager for Acer Latin America. But she also happens to have a Masters degree in computer and electric engineering. A stint at Intel, where she joined a sales and marketing programme for engineers, set her on a new path.

Angelica Davila, marketing manager for Acer Latin America

For the last few months, she has been helping write Acer’s next chapter. She has shepherded into being nothing less than a new brand: ConceptD.

Click here to read more about ConceptD.

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Which voice assistant wins battle of translators?

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Take the most famous phrase from the Godfather – “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse” – or “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” from the inaugural address of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and see just how the virtual assistants do in translating them using their newly introduced Neural Machine Translation (NMT) capabilities. One Hour Translation (OHT), the world’s largest online translation service, conducted a study to find out just how accurate these new services are.

OHT used 60 sentences from movies and famous people ranging from the Godfather and Wizard of Oz to Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon, US presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John Fitzgerald Kennedy and historical figures like Leonardo da Vinci and Aesop. The sentences were translated by Google Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri from English to French, Spanish, Chinese and German and then given to five professional translators for their assessment on a scale of 1-6. 

Google Assistant scored highest in three of the four languages surveyed – English to French, English to German and English to Spanish and second in English to Chinese.  Amazon’s Alexa, whose translation engine is powered by Microsoft Translator, was tops in the English to Chinese category. Apple’s Siri was second place in English to French and English to Spanish and third place in English to German and English to Chinese.  (See chart). All three virtual assistants are compatible with mobile phones.

“The automated assistants’ translation quality was relatively high, which means that assistants are useful for handling simple translations automatically,” says Yaron Kaufman, chief marketing officer and co-founder of OHT. He predicts that “there is no doubt that the use of assistants is growing rapidly, is becoming a part of our lives and will make a huge contribution to the business world.” 

A lot will depend on further improvements in NMT technology, which has revolutionized the field of translation over the past two years.  All the companies active in the field are investing large sums as part of this effort. “OHT is working with several of the leading NMT providers to improve their engines through the use of its hybrid online translation service that combines NMT and human post-editing,” notes Kaufman. He adds that this will no doubt have a huge impact on the use of assistants for translation purposes.

OHT has made a name for itself in assessing the level of translations by NMT engines.  Its ONEs Evaluation Score is a unique human-based assessment of the leading NMT engines conducted on a quarterly basis and used as an industry standard. 

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