What to do with a broken phone to keep your data safe

We try to make sure everyone knows the things they can do to make sure they know how to keep their personal data safe on an Android phone. What you do with the information is up to you, which is how it should be because only you know how valuable you think your personal information is.

But not every answer is simple. A question I hear a lot: What to do when your phone turns on, but the screen is broken? There is a lot of personal information in there!

It happens more than you think. A phone is dropped or sat on or roughed up somehow and the screen breaks. Everything else works; the phone boots up and you can connect it to a computer. Or someone else can connect it to a computer. What do you do about all the data still inside since you can't erase it?

Sometimes broken is temporary and a new part or two is all that's needed.

Besides connecting it to a computer, there's a good chance someone else could even fix it and use it normally. That's something you should explore yourself, too, because fixing a broken screen is always cheaper than replacing a phone.

Luckily, there are a few things you can do to make it really difficult for anyone without a bonafide forensics lab to get your stuff.

Always use a secure lock screen.

Swiping to unlock is as easy for me to do on your phone as it is for you, the real owner. If your phone is encrypted (phones newer than Jelly Bean are by default) and the screen is locked, nobody is going to be able to unlock it without resorting to some pretty difficult hacking. If you break your screen and decide a new phone is the best way to go, even if someone can repair the screen they aren't getting in.

Set up Find My Device

Make sure you've set up the Find My Device tool from Google Play Protect. It's not only a great way to track a lost or stolen phone as long as it's turned on; it has a remote wipe feature, too. Even if you can't use the phone because the screen is broken you can erase all the data on it with Find My Device. And setting it up is dead simple.

Set up Find My Device as soon as you get your phone

Change your Google password

Use another device and change your Google password. Even if you didn't set up Find My Device and have a good screen lock set, if someone gets your old broken phone and is able to fix the display they won't be able to get into your Google Account. This won't clear all of your user data! Apps that are installed might still work and someone who is able to open them will have access to the data from that app. Google's apps, as well as many others, require you to be signed in to your Google account. Data from those apps will be unavailable, but others might not work the same way.

Still, changing your Google password is that extra step to make sure any damage is minimal.

3 essential privacy tips for your new Android phone

these are simple things you can do right now in case you ever break your screen. But if you don't do them and break your phone or have a phone already broken and haven't set up a way to wipe it or a secure screen lock, here are some tips.

Sometimes, you might need to get a little crazy and use tools.

You basically have two options: change your Google password and hope that nobody ever gets it up and running again, or physically destroy the phone's storage.

First things first — more than likely nobody is going through recycling centers or your bins looking for phones they can fix in order to steal your data. People do snatch old phones out of the garbage or a recycle bin, but they usually have different plans and want to resell the ones that are fixable or chemically strip the gold from the circuit boards inside. Neither of these will bother your data. And before you decide you want to get the gold from your old phone instead of recycling it, know that it's messy, not easy, and unless you have a big pile of them isn't going to cover the cost of the chemicals you need.

If you're famous and people really want your photos and personal data, ignore this advice. Hire someone to retrieve or destroy the data. And if a phone that has your job's data on it gets broken, talk to your IT department.

The extra mile

Taking a phone apart isn't difficult if you never plan on putting it back together. If you want to be 100% sure nobody will ever see any of the data stored on your phone, this is for you.

So you want to really break your phone?

First, you'll need to watch for glass and other small sharp things. Alos, some of the parts inside can be hazardous to your skin or if you breathe in any fumes or particles. Wear eye protection, gloves and maybe even a painter's mask. Use big heavy pliers to twist the phone until the screen pops free, usually in many pieces. Keep whittling at things until you see the green circuit board(s) inside. Usually, these are right behind the display.

On those boards, you'll see various black square chips that look and feel like they're ceramic. Two of them are larger than the rest. One of those is the flash storage — usually about the size of a stamp. The other bigger one is the processor. Find a spot of concrete and a hammer. Pull out the board(s) that have the bigger chips on them, then smash the chips until they are cracked and misshapen. Now, put all the pieces in the recycle bin.

How to donate or recycle your old (non-broken) Android phone

Yeah, that's a lot of hassle (fun hassle, but whatever) but it's also a 100% way to make sure nobody is going to be able to retrieve that data. Putting the password on the lock screen was easier.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.