What does privacy really mean?

August, 20 2014

When I walk into a bank, or a classroom, it’s safe to assume that the majority of the people I see will have a smart phone.  A lot of those people are probably due for upgrades sometime soon, too.  But what happens when they turn in their phones to a store, broken or otherwise, to get a new one?  A recent report from Pittsburgh Action News tells us that most of the phones that are resold still contain extensive personal information about the previous user.

At first, this segment on the news seemed inconsequential; how many companies really neglected to delete information?   Then I saw the numbers.  I didn’t even realize that this was an issue before now.  A company did an experiment where they bought 20 used phones off of the internet to see how many had important information still on them.  The results were surprising and scary.  On those 20 phones, there were …”a total of 40,000 photos, 750 emails and text messages, 250 contact names and addresses, and one completed loan application.”

In an era where we keep our lives on our devices, it’s shocking to find out that the phones are being resold without being wiped clean.  If I discovered that a random buyer purchased my old phone with all of my information still intact, I’d be shocked and feel unsafe.

The news report says that even authorized retailers don’t always do the job fully.  There is no clear regulation about protecting privacy in cases like this.

What’s even more shocking is that I didn’t have a clue that a place like Verizon would fail to fully clear a phone’s memory.  Penalties imposed by the government for inadequate information clearing would definitely act as  “…a greater deterrent. [Because] People are more likely to… not make the business risk decision of doing a partial job of wiping the phone…” The report provides a few steps for people trading in phones to clear their information.  Among them are performing a factory reset and deleting cloud accounts or any data back ups.

These days it’s hard to keep track of the privacy settings on everything we use (Facebook, twitter, etc.).  It makes the concept of what is private hard to pin down, especially when we compare it to past generations that didn’t have access to these outlets.  Back then, it seems like privacy was as simple as saying “Don’t hang your dirty laundry out to dry.”  Now it doesn’t feel like anything is completely off limits.


Here is the link to the Pittsburgh Action News report:



Written by Michaela Lies, writing intern at Three Rivers Community Foundation and student at Washington & Jefferson College.