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How can data be recovered if your Apple iPhone smartphone falls into water?

A few weeks ago, we received a request to recover data from a water damaged iPhone 4S. The customer managed to accidentally drop the phone in the swimming pool while making a video. It sank right to the bottom of water, recording the journey along the way. Once retrieved, the phone didn’t stop working instantly. It worked for a bit and switched off –appearing as if it had run out of juice.

The customer dried out the iPhone and managed to make it work for another 30 minutes after which the phone turned itself off again. After several attempts the customer failed to to switch it back on. The iPhone showed no sign of life and a recharging attempt was made which only caused the charger to heat up excessively. The customer didn’t know what to do so they asked us for help.

At some point in our life, our mobile phone will come into contact with water. In serious cases-when the device has dropped in a pool or in the loo- the fear is that data will be lost forever. This can be particularly traumatic for iPhone users since the phones are usually packed with endless amount of personal information such as photos, text messages and phone numbers. In most cases this data is backed up somewhere on a personal computer- but what happens to the iPhone? Can a water damaged device ever be repaired? What needs to be done when an accident occurs to resuscitate it and recover the data within?

If a water damaged iPhone shows no sign of life and a recharging attempt fails the best course of action is to disconnect the phone from its power source - which is the battery and external charger. Once you do this, dry the phone out. Removing the battery in iPhones, however, can be tricky and usually requires tools and a bit of practice. In fact, there are at least three special screws which are needed to remove the battery. Recovery is far more complicated when you have an older iPhone model such as the iPhone 3GS. With these devices you to remove the screen and mainboard, known as the Printed Circuit Board (PCB) just to get to the battery- and this requires at least nine different screws. This is far more complicated than the majority of Android phones, which have a removable back panel that clips on to the phone and contains a removable battery underneath.

In the case of the aforementioned iPhone recovery, water and moisture inside the phone was causing rapid battery drain due to multiple short circuits created by the presence of liquid. In situations like this, if the phone is not dried out as soon as possible it causes additional and permanent damage to the mainboard of the phone. Fortunately, the corrosion and damage to the PCB for this phone wasn’t too severe. This could have been due to a number of factors:

  • The battery charge was low and it discharged quickly
  • Water in the swimming pool had a pretty neutral pH and high acidity or high alkalinity increases destructiveness in contact with electronics
  • The water didn’t spread far enough to cause more damage

Although the customer was unlucky that they dropped their phone in the pool, by attaching a new battery and a simple PCB repair all the data was recovered. However, damage to the phone itself was too severe to continue using it. From the endless stream of cases we've investigated, we find that once the damage has been done, it’s well and truly over for the phone. Best to keep it away from water at all costs.

Michał Cieślik is a Clean Room Engineer at Kroll Ontrack