So you’ve just lost a phone, tablet, or laptop. That’s painful. But what’s worse is the reality that, like a lost wallet, these devices hold a lot of personal data. Personal data that you don’t want to end up in the public. Thankfully, there are ways to prep certain devices so they can be wiped remotely.
How to wipe your device’s data remotely
Backup before heading out
Phones, tablets, and laptops are all devices that are built to travel with you. On one hand, that’s incredibly convenient. On the other, they have the potential to store a lot of personal data that you don’t want to fall into the wrong hands.
The solution is simple: backing up devices. These days, device backup can be a lot more convenient than the manual way. Still, laptops in particular can be backed up to an external hard drive or a network-attached storage (NAS) drive when you’re at home. For Macs, use Time Machine to automate this process. On Windows devices, hit the Windows key and search for ‘backup’ to manage backup settings.
Phones and tablets are a little trickier when it comes to straightforward automated backups, which is why it’s great to rely on cloud storage. OneDrive, iCloud Drive, Google Drive, and Dropbox are all great starting points for automated online backups for your critical data. Just be sure to use a strong password (and, ideally, a password manager).
Regardless of the cloud storage service, you should be able to select the folders and files (including precious photos) that you’d like stored online, which means they’re backed up and accessible from any compatible device. Note that you may have to activate mobile backup as these services tend to prioritise WiFi connections to preserve limited mobile data. Alternatively, opt for a mobile phone plan with plenty of data like the ones below.
How to wipe your iOS and Mac device data remotely
Apple lets you initiate a remote erase request with compatible iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Mac, and Apple Watch devices. No matter the Apple device, this is performed by using the ‘Find My iPhone’ function on iCloud.com. Note that your device needs to be online for this to work. If it’s offline at the time of request, the remote erase request will occur next time the device is online.
In the ‘Find my iPhone’ section of iCloud.com, select ‘All Devices’ then choose the specific Apple device you’d like to erase. Select the ‘Erase iPhone’ option to initiate the remote wipe request. You’ll need to enter your Apple ID password to confirm the request, and possibly answer security questions or enter a verification code. For Mac devices, you’ll need to use a passcode to lock it (remember this passcode for unlocking purposes, where relevant).
If your device is lost or stolen, select an option that doesn’t require verification via phone number or text message. Once you’ve started the erase process, you’ll be sent a confirmation message to your Apple ID email address. Activation Lock kicks in to prevent unauthorised access to your Apple device. For those with two-factor authentication, the device will be removed from your trusted devices list.
Note that if you find the device, it can be unlocked and restored from an existing backup.
How to wipe your Android device data remotely
Google lets you erase data for Android phones, tablets, or Wear OS watches, so long as you’ve added a Google Account to the device. By default, the ‘Find My Device’ feature is automatically enabled on Android devices. To ensure a missing Android device is accessible, Google advises the following:
- The device is turned on.
- The device is signed into a Google Account.
- The device is connected to WiFi (or mobile data).
- The device is visible on Google Play.
- The device has location enabled.
- The device has Find My Device enabled.
Google notes that lost phones used for two-factor verification will need either a backup phone or backup code to access. To remotely erase, head to the dedicated Android website then sign in with your Google Account credentials. For multiple devices under the same account, click the corresponding icon at the top of the screen. If you use multiple Google Accounts on a device you want to erase, sign in to the main profile.
With the device selected, choose ‘Enable lock & erase’, then ‘Erase device’. Note that everything on phone storage should be deleted but it might not delete data stored on SD cards. If you find your device afterwards, you’ll need to use your Google Account password to access it again.
How to wipe your Windows device data remotely
Unfortunately, remotely wiping data on a Windows laptop or other device is a lot less straightforward than iOS, Mac, and Android devices. To perform a remote data wipe on a Windows device, you’ll need to first install third-party software.
There are popular options from the likes of DriveStrike and Prey to help simplify this. Alternatively, you’d need to use Windows’ inbuilt Remote Desktop Connection—preconfigured before the device is lost or stolen—or remote desktop software like TeamViewer, LogMeIn, or RemotePC. Remote desktop software lets you use a configured device as though you’re sitting in front of it, but both devices need a stable internet connection for it to function properly.
Whichever remote desktop option you use, connect to your device, hit the Windows button and search for ‘Reset this PC’ (on Windows 10 and Windows 11 devices). Select the kind of wipe you’d like to perform—keeping or removing personal files—then follow the steps. Admittedly, you’d need to locate the device again to complete the reset, but selecting the option to remove personal files would at least get rid of the device’s data.