How to Remotely Wipe Your Stolen or Lost iPhone's Data

Hands on a detonator
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Every time Tom Cruise received his mission briefing in the Mission Impossible movies, the briefing message, and oftentimes whatever was playing it, would self-destruct to prevent anyone else from viewing it. In real life, this would be a great (albeit dangerous) data protection mechanism. Wouldn't it be great if your iPhone could self-destruct to keep thieves from getting to your personal data if they happened to steal your phone?

The folks at Apple must have been Mission Impossible fans because they've provided a similar feature for iOS devices such as the iPhone and iPad, minus the explosives of course.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to learn how to turn this feature on so that you can make the data on your iPhone go bye-bye if someone enters the wrong passcode too many times or steals your phone.

Here's how to self-destruct (wipe) your iPhone's data in a couple of different situations:

Method 1: Remote Data Wipe via Find My iPhone

If you want to remotely wipe out the data on your iPhone in the event that it becomes lost or stolen:

  1. Backup your iPhone's data. You should regularly backup your iPhone's data either via USB connection to iTunes or via wireless if supported by your iOS version.

  2. Setup the Find My iPhone feature on your iPhone. You must first turn on the Find my iPhone feature on your phone. You must also have an active iCloud account on your device for Find My iPhone to work. iCloud accounts are available for free from Apple. In iOS 5.x or above go to the Settings app, choose iCloud and turn Find My iPhone to ON if it is not already set as such. If your firmware is pre-iOS 5 then you will need to follow these instructions instead.

  3. Lock access to your iPhone's Location Services settings. Savvy bad guys will know how to quickly turn the Find My iPhone feature off so you need to disable their ability to turn off locations services.

    This is done by enabling the Restrictions feature and restricting the ability to modify the Location Services settings.

    1. In the iPhone Settings app, go to the General menu and turn Restrictions on.
    2. Set a passcode (don't pick an easy one).
    3. Scroll down to the Privacy section and touch the Location Services setting.
    4. Scroll down on the page and make sure the Find iPhone option is set to While Using the App and then scroll to the top of the page and choose Don't Allow Changes.
  4. Setting Don't Allow Changes ensures that thieves can't turn off your iPhone's ability to know its location. The extra time the thief would have to take to try and crack your passcode might make him decide to ditch the phone making its recovery more likely.

In the event that you are sure you aren't going to get your phone back, use the Remote Data Wipe feature.

Once you remote wipe the data on your device you will no longer be able to locate it using Find My iPhone. The remote wipe should be used only when you're convinced that you are never going to get your device back. Consider it dead to you once you remote wipe it.

To initiate the remote data wipe:

  1. Review the Warning (above) before following confirmation instructions to erase the device. This is your last chance to turn back.

  2. Open the Find iPhone app from either another iOS device such as an iPad or from a computer's web browser by visiting the iCloud website and logging into your iCloud account.

  3. Tap the device you want to erase from the list. Choose Erase iPhone from the bottom right corner of the screen (or window that opens on your browser).

Method 2: Self Destruct After Too Many Failed Passcode Attempts

If you want your iPhone to wipe its data should the wrong passcode be attempted more than 10 times:

  1. In the Settings app, choose the Touch ID & Passcode menu and then select the Passcode Lock option. If you already have a passcode, enter it now and skip to step 3.

  2. Choose Turn Passcode On, set a passcode and confirm it. You may want to consider setting a stronger passcode than the default 4-digit one.

  3. At the bottom of the Touch ID & Passcode settings page, turn the Erase Data option to ON.

  4. Read the warning and choose the Enable button.

Use Caution with 'Erase Data' Settings

If you have kids or someone else that uses your phone, the Erase Data on 10 failed passcode tries may not be a good idea. Your child might try to guess the code one too many times and BOOM, your iPhone's data is wiped out. The remote wipe feature, while not as secure as the failed passcode wipe option, might make more sense in situations where you have others regularly using (or playing with) your iPhone.