Data Security

Secure Your Data: How a Remote Wipe Can Protect Your Information

Prevent data breaches with remote wipes. Discover the benefits and learn how to use this security feature. Read our comprehensive guide!

February 6, 2024

If you’ve ever panicked about the security of your data on a lost or stolen device, remote wipe is a term you need to know. Acting as a digital self-destruct, remote wipe allows you to erase your data remotely to prevent unauthorized access. In this article, you’ll discover how to execute a remote wipe, understand its essential role in mobile device management, and navigate its use across various operating systems—securing your digital footprint no matter where your device ends up.

Key Takeaways

  • Remote wipe is a security feature that an administrator or device owner can use to erase data from a lost or stolen device; it works on various operating systems like Android, iOS, and Windows through MDM tools or built-in features.
  • Multiple types of remote wipes exist for different needs, including complete device wipes, enterprise wipes that only remove company data, and application-specific wipes, suitable for BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policies and personal use.
  • For effective data security, organizations must establish comprehensive policies, employee education, and regular data backups, and combine remote wipe with other security measures like data encryption and strong passwords to protect sensitive information.

What is a Remote Wipe?

Remote wipe functionality can be implemented as part of a mobile device management (MDM) solution or specialized endpoint security tools like Prey. The MDM tool can be configured to allow an administrator to remotely delete certain files or folders on a device, wipe all of the device’s memory, or render the device unusable.

To remotely wipe a device, an administrator sends a command to the MDM solution installed on the device over mobile or Wi-Fi networks. When the MDM solution receives this command, it begins the remote wipe process. If the wiping process is not interrupted by a system reboot or similar event, it will delete the indicated files.

How does it work?

A remote wipe is not as complicated as it may sound. Here’s how it works:

  • The device in question must be powered on and connected to a network.
  • The remote wipe process begins when an administrator sends a command over the network.
  • This command is transmitted via mobile or Wi-Fi networks to the mobile device management (MDM) solution or specialized tool installed on the device.
  • These tools acknowledge the command and process the data deletion instructions.

The speed at which the wiping process occurs hinges on the timing of the wipe command. If the device is online at the moment the command is dispatched, the device will be wiped within minutes. If not, the wipe will take place as soon as the device reconnects to the internet. Once the wipe command is received by the device, the action to remove data concludes typically within 15 minutes for all device types. The wiping process may selectively delete specified files and folders, remove all device memory, or render the device completely unusable. The procedure could result in data being securely overwritten to prevent forensic recovery or the device being restored to factory default settings.

It’s important to note that not all wipes are identical. Let’s broaden our understanding of the various types of remote wipes.

Types of Remote Wipes

Several types of remote wipes are designed to meet specific needs. Some examples include:

  • Consumer-focused MDM applications such as Android Device Manager and Apple Find My enable users to wipe their devices completely.
  • Enterprise Wipe features, provided by MDM applications like Intune, Absolute and Prey, remove all corporate access and content.

Cloud applications, for example, Dropbox, enable remote wipes that specifically remove data provided by the application, while ensuring the information is still retained in the user’s cloud account. MDM solutions provide more granular control by offering the ability to selectively remove corporate data, preserving personal data on the device. 

Why is remote wipe important?

Remote wipe is a security solution primarily designed to address physical threats to device security, such as the loss, theft, or misuse of a company’s devices. If an attacker has access to a user’s device, they may be able to read the data stored on the device if it is unencrypted or if they can guess the owner’s password or PIN.

The COVID-19 pandemic normalized remote work, so corporate devices are increasingly being used from outside, and mobile devices are increasingly used for business purposes. These two factors both mean that devices with access to corporate data and systems are more likely to be lost or stolen than in the past when corporate devices were primarily located in the office.

Remote wipe helps an organization manage the physical security risks of remote work. If devices are lost or stolen, an administrator has the ability to delete the data from them.

Limitations of remote wipe

Remote wipes can be a powerful tool for organizations looking to limit the risks of remote devices; however, they are not infallible. Some of the limitations of remote wipe solutions include:

  • Devices Must Be Online: Remote work solutions work by sending a signal to a device over the network to initiate the wiping process. It can't be wiped if a device is turned off, in airplane mode, or otherwise cut off from the network.
  • Remote Wipe Can Be Interrupted: Remote wipe solutions only work as long as they are not interrupted by a system restart or similar event. If a thief reboots the device while data deletion is occurring, then some data may not be successfully deleted from the device.
  • Data May Be Recovered: Remote wipe solutions delete data from a device, making it inaccessible. However, in some cases, an attacker may be able to retrieve data from the device. For example, old and solid-state drives may allow the recovery of deleted data.
  • Only Protects Against Known Loss/Theft: Remote wipe solutions rely on an administrator sending a signal to the device to wipe it. This means that a device will only be wiped if the administrator is aware that it has been lost or stolen. If an employee is unaware that a device has been stolen or waits to report it, then an attacker may be able to extract data from it before it is wiped.

Real-Life Scenarios for Remote Wipe Use

Remote wipe provides the ability to delete information from a device without physical access to it. This can be used to address various threats to an organization’s devices and data. Some potential use cases for remote wipes include the following.

An employee reports a device stolen

If a device is stolen from an employee, then the thief may be able to extract sensitive data from that device. Upon receiving a report of the theft, an administrator can remotely wipe the device to ensure company data security.

A device is lost by an employee

A lost device could fall into the wrong hands, potentially exposing sensitive corporate data to an unauthorized party. Remote wipes can be used as a precaution, in this case, to protect sensitive data in the event that the device is not found.

A company office has a break-in

The aftermath of a break-in can be confusing, and it can be difficult to determine what might have been stolen vs. simply misplaced during the confusion. If devices have location tracking enabled, an organization can identify the ones likely to have been stolen and wipe them to protect any sensitive data that may be stored on them.

​​Employee Departures

Remote wipe serves as a fundamental tool for preserving data security when an employee departs from a company. It can be used to delete data from their devices upon departure, ensuring that company information is not retained by former employees.

The strategy for dealing with employee turnover includes using remote wipe to clear company devices, either to prepare them for future employees or to allow former employees to retain the devices.

An internal malefactor (employee) is accused of wrongful use of company devices

Not all threats to an organization’s data and systems originate from outside the organization. Internal malicious actors (employees, contractors, etc.) may be misusing company devices and refuse to hand them over to the organization, making it difficult for an organization to protect this data against misuse.  In this case, the company can use a remote wipe to delete the data on these devices, denying insider threat access to it and corporate systems.

The organization is selling/disposing of devices

Remote wipe is crucial when repurposing or disposing of devices that were previously used by employees, ensuring all sensitive data is erased before the device changes hands. Developing a clear policy for remote wiping before selling or disposing of devices ensures that data is consistently deleted and cannot be retrieved by the new owner.

‍Best Practices for Remote Wipe and Data Security

The implementation of remote wipe is merely a single stride on the path to holistic data security. To truly protect sensitive information, organizations need to implement a range of data security best practices.

Regular Data Backups

Before executing a remote wipe, it’s vital to back up important data. This precaution helps avoid the loss of critical information and ensures the respect of user privacy rights. A comprehensive backup and restore strategy should be in place for mobile devices to facilitate data recovery if necessary, which includes implementing automated backup processes and regularly testing these procedures for integrity and reliability.

Combining Remote Wipe with Other Security Features

Enhancing remote wipe capabilities is possible by incorporating additional security measures such as password protection, data encryption, and secure access protocols. Full disk encryption, like Windows 10 and 11’s BitLocker, is crucial for preventing unauthorized data access in the event that remote wipe is unable to be executed.

Secondary encryption for business data and sensitive applications adds another dimension of protection that fortifies the security measures like remote wipe. This multi-layered approach to security ensures that your organization’s data remains secure, even in the most challenging circumstances, and helps to protect sensitive data.

Developing a Remote Wipe Policy

From an organizational perspective, remote wipe is an indispensable tool. It safeguards sensitive data on devices that are lost or stolen, ultimately blocking unauthorized access and potential data breaches, that is why having a remote wipe policy is fundamental for your data security and protection strategy

Every organization should have a remote wipe policy that includes:

  • Formulate explicit policies regarding its usage
  • Encompass the types of devices subject to wiping
  • Specify the personnel authorized to initiate a remote wipe
  • Define the specific scenarios warranting a remote wipe

Employee education on mobile security is crucial to help prevent device loss or theft, and training users and staff on the use of the remote wiping feature is vital for data protection.

For BYOD strategies, the remote wipe tool should support an enterprise wipe setting that only deletes company-related data, preserving the employee’s personal data. It’s crucial for companies to communicate to employees that only work-related data will be erased if the device is lost. Transparency regarding remote wipe policies and procedures can help prevent misunderstandings over data loss.

An organization’s remote wipe policy should ensure that mobile devices are always powered on to receive the remote wipe signal.

Overcoming Remote Wipe Limitations

Despite being a potent tool, remote wipe has its limitations. For example, if the device restarts during the wiping process or if data recovery is attempted - particularly on older or solid-state drives - remote wipe procedures can occasionally leave data untouched.

To improve remote wipe security, organizations can take measures such as:

Implementing Remote Wipe in Your Organization with Prey

In a remote working reality, organizations wishing to manage the risk of lost, stolen, or misused devices need remote wipe capabilities. The ability to factory reset devices, delete data, and restore the manufacturer’s default settings, is ideal when preparing devices for a new owner. It also provides protection for lost and stolen devices and can enable secure device disposal or transfer for a remote workforce.

Prey offers support for custom remote wipe, factory reset, and Master Boot Record, different king of device wipe approaches.  Learn more about these and other Prey data protection solutions.

Key takeaways

Remote wiping can help protect sensitive or confidential data from falling into the wrong hands. For example, if your device is lost or stolen, you can use a remote wipe to securely erase your data, including sensitive data like your personal information. Similarly, a remote wipe can assist in making sure that your data is deleted and cannot be retrieved by the new owner when you sell or donate your device.

To ensure you don't lose any crucial data, you should make a backup before starting a remote wipe. This process can be done using Mobile Device Management (MDM) software or other remote wiping tools on various devices, including smartphones, laptops, and tablets.

A clear policy for your firm is crucial to implement remote wiping correctly, guaranteeing it is applied consistently and successfully throughout your firm. To ensure the safety of your data and devices, we recommend utilizing remote wiping in tandem with other security measures as part of a comprehensive security strategy. One effective approach is to employ a combination of security features, including remote wiping, password protection, and data encryption. By using multiple security measures, you can enhance the protection of your sensitive information and devices against unauthorized access or theft.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a remote wipe?

A remote wipe allows you to erase data from a device if it's lost or stolen, protecting sensitive information from unauthorized access. It's a security feature used to remotely delete data from a device.

Can a phone be wiped remotely?

Yes, a phone can be wiped remotely if it is turned on, connected to a network, and able to receive the wipe command wirelessly. This feature is useful for protecting data if the device is lost or stolen.

What are the types of remote wipes?

Remote wipes can be consumer-focused, enterprise-focused, or application-specific, targeting either all data on the device or only specific files and folders. These types are designed to meet different needs and security requirements.

What are some best practices for remote wipe and data security?

Regular data backups and combining remote wipe with other security features such as password protection, data encryption, and secure access protocols can enhance data protection and security. Be sure to implement these best practices for remote wipe and data security.

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