Your Phone Could Soon Let You Block Access to Personal Data

Helping those who can’t help themselves

  • Samsung Galaxy phones in South Korea are getting a new Repair Mode functionality via a software update.
  • The new mode will help lockdown personal data on the device, enabling just enough access for the techs to fix it.
  • Security experts welcomed the feature but asked Samsung to share more details about its implementation before rolling it out more widely.
An artistic, paper-like image of a hand tapping a lock on a smartphone.

Carol Yepes / Getty Images

Samsung is rolling out a new update that’ll help people overcome the uneasiness we all feel every time we hand over our phones for repairs. 

The company is debuting a new Galaxy phone feature in South Korea. Called Repair Mode, it hides users' data to prevent its theft when a device is turned over for repair. According to a translated version of the Korean press release, repair mode will block access to photos, messages, and account information when activated.

"This feature allows users to protect data, photos, attachments, contacts, and other data so that prying eyes cannot access information while a device is out for repair,” Stephanie Kurtz, Lead Faculty for the College of Information Systems and Technology at the University of Phoenix, told Lifewire over email. "This is a great new feature for users with no other options to lock down the data they have stored on a device."

Limiting Access

In an email discussion, Dimitri Shelest, founder and CEO of OneRep, an online privacy company that helps people remove their sensitive information from the internet, told Lifewire that the feature makes very good sense as many people store personal and often very sensitive data on their devices, from passwords and pin codes to financial accounts and credit card details. 

The press release mentions scant details about the new feature, saying it's being rolled out via a software update, will reboot the device when activated, and can be turned off only using the owner's pattern or biometric recognition.

This is why Shelest, while welcoming the feature, stressed that to build trust, Samsung must be absolutely transparent about what this protection entails and how it is provided to ensure no consumer information is compromised.

"Consumers, on their end, should be more curious about how devices and apps installed on them handle their data and adopt the privacy-first approach that helps to avoid breaches, identity theft, and other privacy issues that may cause financial damage and other far-reaching consequences," said Shelest.

Be Your Own Watchdog

While the feature sounds useful, Kurtz said it doesn’t absolve people from taking care of what they manage, store, and send from personal devices. She cautioned against long-term storage of personally identifiable information (PII) on mobile devices.

"Beyond repair incidents, data can be exfiltrated off of mobile devices through unsecure applications and are a target for bad actors now that mobile payments have become more common,” said Kurtz. “Ensure you set up security, passwords, virus scanning, and offload data that is no longer in use.”

Kurtz praised Samsung for facilitating end-user security but also cautioned people that the repair mode should not be used as an excuse to avoid backing up data on the device before bringing it in for repairs. 

But know that the ultimate end-user security is your responsibility.

"Remember, just because a device is locked down does not mean that the device might [not] need a reset due to failures,” said Kurtz. “Avoid the potential data loss by backing up if you can before allowing any repair work to take place.”

The repair mode is being rolled out on the Galaxy S21 series within South Korea. In the release, Samsung noted that the feature will be added to more models over time, though it didn’t mention if and when the feature will be available in other countries.

However, experts think the feature should definitely be more generally available. “So many things seem to be absolutely essential after they have come into our lives that we wonder how we ever functioned before,” said Shelest. 

He believes Repair Mode has the potential to become one of those essential features that’ll make us wonder how we ever lived without it. However, the bigger takeaway for him is the fact that privacy and data protection are becoming the focus of many people and companies. This he argued will lead to a flurry of new products and features centered around data safety. 

"I love that Samsung is thinking about end-user security,” said Kurtz. “But know that the ultimate end-user security is your responsibility. Make sure to consider what you store, manage and maintain on your device and how to protect your personal information."

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