Definition

remote wipe

Remote wipe is a security feature that allows a network administrator or device owner to send a command that deletes data to a computing device. It is primarily used to erase data on a device that has been lost or stolen so that if the device falls into the wrong hands, the data won't be compromised. It is also used to remove data from a device that has changed owners or administrators and cannot be accessed physically to remove data.

How does a remote wipe work?

Once a device is known to be lost or stolen, the device user or administrator will have options as to how they want to wipe the device. What remote wipe specifically accomplishes can depend on the device, its specific operating system version and any third-party mobile device management (MDM) software installed on the device.

A remote wipe may delete data in selected folders, repeatedly overwrite stored data to prevent recovery using a forensic image, return the device to factory settings or remove all programming on the device, essentially turning it into a brick, meaning that it is no longer of any use to anyone. 

For a remote wipe to work, a device needs to be powered on and be connected to a network so it can receive the communication from the software commanding it to be wiped. A user attempting to remotely wipe their missing device can run into problems if the device is rebooted during the process, if the device is on airplane mode, or if connectivity to the device is somehow otherwise impeded.  

Remote wipe can be used in both enterprise devices that contain company data and personal devices that hold personal data. Ideal software and methods of remote wipe may vary depending on whether the device is for personal or enterprise use.

Who offers remote wipe?

In the enterprise, remote wipe capabilities are available natively on most smartphones and tablets through Exchange ActiveSync, which synchronizes access to email, calendar, contacts and tasks from the organization's Microsoft Exchange server. Other enterprise-centric MDM software -- also known as enterprise mobility management software (EMM) -- that offer remote wipe include the following:

  • Google Apps Premier Edition is primarily used in enterprises and schools, this MDM offers a feature enabling IT administrators within these organizations to remotely wipe devices.
  • AirWatch by VMware is an enterprise mobility management technology that helps IT departments manage enterprise devices by securing and enforcing policies on those devices. It includes an Enterprise Wipe feature that allows for the removal of all corporate access and content without touching personal files and settings. For this reason, AirWatch and software like it are particularly useful in a bring your own device (BYOD) environment in which employees use their personal devices to access business applications as well as for personal use.

MDM products also offer this technology as consumer-focused apps. Examples include the following:

  • Apple's Find My iPhone is a fairly simple to use application is provided if the user is signed into their iCloud account and has enabled this feature. This app allows users to wipe their phones if necessary, as well as ring the device.
  • Android Device Manager is another example of a consumer-focused MDM application that has a remote wipe feature. The device manager, also known as Find My Device, allows users to wipe their Android, as well as remotely lock or ring the device. The device manager, while not automatically installed on the Android platform, is available for download in the Google Play App store.
  • Lost Device Protection is an app developed by Trend Micro that is available for both Android and iOS. It allows for location and alarm features for both operating systems, and wipe and lock features for android only.
  • Prey is a third-party app with free and paid options for both consumers and enterprises. Prey also enables users to manage and wipe devices across platforms. It can monitor laptops and PCs as well as mobile phones and tablets, unlike some other options listed above that focus primarily on smartphones and more easily lost devices.

Aside from MDM applications, there are also consumer-focused cloud applications that offer their own built-in wipe feature. For example, Dropbox allows users to wipe any Dropbox related data from a compromised device with one click. This remote wipe option focuses on wiping the data provided by this one application, as opposed to wiping data based on its location in the phone. Users who wipe data using a cloud-based application like Dropbox will still have that data in their account, but it will be removed from the device they've chosen to wipe.

Remote wipe contrasts with local wipe (also called auto wipe), a security feature that wipes a mobile device after a pre-specified number of failed login attempts or after a device moves outside of a defined physical boundary (see geofencing).

This was last updated in November 2019

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How useful is remote wipe as an enterprise security measure in the era of cloud computing and BYOD environments?
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For laptops (and smart devices), encrypting the stored data BEFORE the device is lost/stolen is the best business practice. For laptops, Self-Encrypting Drives (SED), both HDD and solid-state, as standardized by the Trusted Computing Group, offer the best encryption approach, superior in every respect to software-based encryption.
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