Need a computer repair? The study finds that your personal data may be at risk

  • A recent study found that many computer repair shops gained access to customer data.
  • Experts say that almost all of your data is vulnerable when technicians work on your device.
  • Make sure you encrypt your files when you get your phone or laptop repaired.

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You may want to check the security settings on your gadget the next time you need to send it in for repair.

Researchers recently discovered that technicians had access to data on the laptops they were working on. The study also showed that few workshops have clear privacy rules. So it’s a good reminder to beef up your device’s security if your laptop or phone needs repairs, experts say.

“If you’ve given your device to a repair company and given them access with your security pin, they can access anything that’s not further restricted on your phone and make copies of the data,” cybersecurity expert Josh Smith of the company Nusipire told Lifewire in a email interview.

Not so private repairs

Researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, examined laptops repaired at local shops. The data showed that technicians from six locations had access to personal information and that two stores also copied information.

“Our investigation shows an absence of policies and controls to protect customers’ data across all types of repair services,” the researchers wrote in the paper. “We show that despite their concerns, customers are getting their devices repaired to save costs or data. We provide suggestions on how privacy in the repair industry can be improved. Our work calls for action from device manufacturers, OS developers, repair service providers. , and regulatory bodies to take appropriate measures to safeguard customers’ privacy in the repair industry.”

There is always a malicious actor lurking out there somewhere.

Brent Skumlien, the information security architect for the University of Phoenix, said in an email to Lifewire that if your device is not encrypted with a strong password, the data on the device can be seen by anyone with the phone or tablet. He said strangers could browse your private photos, read your text messages or even make copies of your data.

“Devices such as phones and tablets are important parts of our digital lives and contain vast amounts of private data,” Skumlien added. “Photos, emails, text messages and social media posts are just some of the things at stake. And it’s not just local data; these devices are our connection to a wide range of cloud services such as Google Drive, iCloud and even our banks. Without taking the right precautions, all of this could be at risk.”

Keep your data safe

If your device needs repair, there are steps you can take to keep your data more secure. Skumlien said you should first make sure your device is encrypted and has a strong password. Android and Apple devices support and even standard encryption. Also, make sure important data is backed up somewhere, such as iCloud, Google Drive or other cloud services.

In addition to device encryption, many apps that connect to cloud services support fingerprint or Face ID access, Skumlien said, adding, “So even if the device itself is unlocked, you still have to unlock the app to get to the data.”

Skumlien pointed out that a new feature on iPhone and iPad with iOS 16 is the ability to hide and lock photo albums. “This could be an attractive option for extra sensitive images that deserve another layer of protection,” he said.

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Try to choose a workshop where you can watch the technician work on your device, Skumlien said. “They may need you to unlock the device to verify functionality after the repair, but make sure they don’t take the device into a back room after you’ve unlocked it.”

If you need to send your device in for repair, such as warranty work, there’s a chance the company can send you a new device if yours can’t be repaired. If that’s the case, you might be able to remotely wipe the device if it’s ever turned back on and connected to the Internet, Skumlien said.

“And if you get the original device back, the repair technician won’t have had access to your data while working on it,” he added.

Despite the recent study showing that there is a risk to your data, Smith said not to worry too much.

“Personally, I think this is a pretty low risk when using a reputable repair company, but it’s not impossible by any means,” he added. “There’s always a malicious actor lurking out there somewhere.”

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