Securely Erasing Your iPhone or iPad — With a Power Drill

If you can’t power on your mobile device, Apple has no answers for you. But you can still obliterate the data. Here’s how.

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images

If you have an iPhone or iPad you’re planning to give away or recycle, you’ll of course want to make sure that any sensitive information on it is not recoverable.

There is an official way to do this, and an unofficial one. This article focuses on the latter.

But first, let’s go over the official route to wiping your device, which is ideal if it is an option for you. This technique erases a specific iPhone or iPad encryption key — one, under normal use, that starts the processing of decrypting your content; erasing this key renders all of your data cryptographically inaccessible.

You’ll need an iPhone or iPad that turns on just fine and that you can either navigate using the touchscreen or connect to your computer. Apple provides instructions for iPhones and iPads, directing you to the Settings app, where you can perform a reset of the device (by going to Settings > General > Reset > Erase all Content and Settings). The same instructions also let you know what to do if you can’t get into the Settings app on your device: You can try to hook it up to your laptop or desktop device and perform a reset that way. If the computer reset method doesn’t work, Apple also provides instructions on how to wipe the device by booting it into recovery mode. If your device won’t even turn on, Apple also provides a few additional troubleshooting steps to take, like performing a force restart and making sure the device is charged.

When the Official Ways Don’t Work

But what do you do if you’ve tried all of Apple’s troubleshooting steps, and your device still won’t turn on or connect to your computer — and contains sensitive information that you want to be sure is not recoverable?

If you have set a strong passcode on your device, the good news is that the passcode also acts as part of your device’s encryption key, meaning that the data on your device is encrypted. If your passcode is hard to guess, someone who takes your device won’t be able to get into it under normal circumstances.

That said, every once in a while, vulnerabilities are discovered that bypass lock screen passcodes — and these are just the ones that are made public. Exploit vendors can pay millions to privately acquire vulnerabilities, while some forensics companies claim to have the capability to access all iPhones and iPads and to be able to “tackle your locked and encrypted devices.”

If you can’t access your device, the most careful approach to wiping it is to destroy the flash memory chip that houses your data. This way you don’t have to lose sleep if you didn’t use a strong passcode, or worry about a forensics vendor being able to recover any of your personal information.

Taking Apart Your Device

In this example, we’re destroying the flash memory chip from an iPad 6. You can find detailed teardowns for different versions of iPads and iPhones, or other devices, on iFixIt. Regardless of the specific model, the general process of physically destroying data is the same: Take the screen off the iPhone or iPad, find the logic board, and then destroy the flash memory chip.

To get to the flash memory chip, you’re first going to take your iPad apart. The first thing to do is to take off the iPad’s touchscreen digitizer panel to be able to access the rest of the iPad’s internal components. There are commercial tools to help take the panel off, but you can also take a heat gun to the perimeter of the iPad panel to loosen the adhesive holding it in place, and then take the panel off with the help of a pry tool. Once you’ve removed the digitizer panel, the next step is to unscrew the screen to detach it from the iPad enclosure and access the rest of the iPad’s internal components.

Once you’ve removed the screen, you’ll see the iPad’s battery taking up the bulk of the enclosure, and a metal cover on the side. The cover houses the iPad’s logic board, which in turn contains the flash memory chip where the iPad stores all of your data.

Covered iPad logic board — located next to the battery — visible once the touchscreen panel and screen have been removed.

Photo: Nikita Mazurov

Remove all of the screws and connecting cables which may be holding the logic board in place, and take off the board’s cover.

The flash memory chip is silver in color and sits in its own metallic enclosure to the side of the logic board, next to the black processor chip.

The iPad flash memory chip located on the logic board, next to the processor chip.

Photo: Nikita Mazurov

Now just take a regular power drill and drill through the memory chip, and you can see your data turn into powder. At this point, you can continue drilling holes in the chip until it eventually falls apart. As always when working with power tools, you should be sure to wear personal protective equipment, such as goggles and gloves, and maintain a safe work area.

You can now safely dispose of the disassembled iPad in accordance with your local electronics disposal regulations.


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