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Shred, Burn, Erase

By Frank Hayes
August 30, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - How do you deal with the sensitive data on your high-tech junk? One way is to send your old PCs to a company that makes a business of handling decommissioned corporate computers. These days, they'll charge you an extra $10 to $30 just to make sure the hard disks are completely erased .
Sure, that's more than you want to spend. But it's a bargain compared with what a lawsuit might cost if sensitive customer information leaks out of your company on the unerased hard disk of a discarded PC. It's a small price to pay for peace of mind.
But if what you want is peace of mind, it's nowhere near enough.
Does that sound a little paranoid? Maybe it is. But I've purchased thrift-store PCs and junk-shop hard disks. And yes, I've scanned through their contents before repartitioning the drives. I've seen personal letters and business correspondence, contracts and legal papers, Social Security numbers and other customer data. All you need is to scan a few recycled hard disks to gain a healthy paranoia about junkers that contain valuable information. I've scanned dozens.
I've also seen the results of projects by researchers such as Simson Garfinkel at Sandstorm Enterprises, who found high-tech vendor source code, financial information from investment firms, thousands of credit card numbers and even internal Microsoft e-mails on secondhand hard disks he bought at swap meets and used-computer stores and on eBay.
So my peace-of-mind threshold is pretty high when it comes to data on high-tech junk. Maybe yours should be, too.
After all, that PC recycler may do a highly professional job of wiping your junked PCs' hard disks. But before that happens, those PCs will sit on your loading dock -- then on a truck, then on the recycler's loading dock. There may be plenty of opportunities for someone to walk off with your data.
How do you keep it safe until it's wiped? The simplest answer: Use a $50 commercial software package to wipe the disks yourself, before they go to your loading dock. Then pay the PC recycler's fee to have them wiped again. Sure, that's a belt-and-suspenders approach, but it cuts the risk of a stolen junker exposing sensitive data. It also eliminates the single point of failure of one disk-wiping session.
But that's not the only small price you'll have to pay to protect your data. There's probably data hiding on other high-tech junk, too.
Backup tapes are easy enough to deal with. You are using a $100 bulk eraser to wipe them before you trash them, right?

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