Disposing my old mobile phone is a simple matter of running a special app called “Nuclear Cleanse” that I’d obtained via root kit ages ago. Most people, when they wish to erase the contents of their phone, perform a “factory reset” which they believe will securely erase all of their personal data from their device. And to be fair, most of the time, for most people, “factory resetting” your phone accomplishes their desired objective.
But for a rarified few, if your name exists on a very short, state-authored list of undesirable people, then what performing a “factory reset” actually does is send up a big red flare in cyberspace telling authorities, “Hey! Here I am!” followed by the surreptitious beaming of all personal data you may have on your device off to some mothership in the cloud somewhere.
Furthermore, if you’ve ever wondered how “data recovery experts” down at the local strip mall, sandwiched between the Jamba Juice and the Kung Fu Bubble Tea place, are able to somehow recover that long-lost video file that Grandma accidentally shift-dragged to the recycle bin, here lies the secret: When you “delete” a file on your device, the file in fact isn’t really deleted at all. Instead, the computer simply labels that memory address space on the disk as “unoccupied” and ready to be written over. Then, the next time you record an hour-long video, the device “knows” to write to that address space. The key here: If you never record a new video, that old file that you “deleted” is never actually deleted; it’s physically still on the disk. And thus can be recovered.
Thus, the “Nuclear Cleanse” app does exactly what you’d imagine it would: Upon invocation, it overwrites every single existing byte in the memory of your device with some gibberish token of information. The process takes exponentially longer than a “factory reset” but also has the nice feature of actually wiping all personal data from my device. Technology is terrific, but you need to know how to use it.
Back in my hotel room, I boot up the new phone that Charlotte gave me and register it with my thumbprint biometric. This also conveniently transfers over my hotel keycard over to the new phone.
In the movies, there’s always some ridiculous scene where the hero needs to get rid of his phone and then proceeds to chuck his device into a lake or some other body of water. On a long list of Hollywood travesties, that trope is definitely among the worst of the worst. Electrical devices can be easily recovered from bodies of water. And after the devices dry, they –surprise, surprise– usually turn on and work just fine. If you ever need to discard your phone for some reason, please don’t hurl it into a lake. That will do absolutely nothing. Also: It’s weird. If you saw some random stranger throw a $2,000 iPhone into the ocean, wouldn’t you be suspicious? Such shady behavior arouses nothing but unwanted attention.
No, after my old phone finishes its “nuclear cleansing,” I’ll likely sell it off at a pawn shop somewhere in Shanghai. Truth be told, it’s a late-model Samsung and will likely still fetch a pretty penny. Also, even after being wiped of all personal data, the phone –the moment it turns on– will still need to connect and register with services like GPS and NFC which immediately betrays its identity because each device connects to the global network with unique hardware identifiers that are burned into the phone’s firmware. Pawning off the phone is both infinitely less suspicious and also has the added benefit of misdirection. If the NSA or anyone ever wished to track me, they’re welcome to follow some Chinese teen as she galivants off across the Shanghai night city scene. All the more power to them.