Survey: 40% of hard drives bought on eBay hold personal, corporate data

Buyers found data on everything from corporate spreadsheets to e-mails and photos

A New York computer forensics firm found that 40% of the hard disk drives it recently purchased in bulk orders on eBay contained personal, private and sensitive information -- everything from corporate financial data to the Web-surfing history and downloads of a man with a foot fetish.

Kessler International conducted the study over a six-month period, buying up disk drives ranging in size from 40GB to 300GB from the United States and Canada. The firm, which completed its research about two weeks ago, bought a total of 100 relatively modern drives, the vast majority of them Serial ATA.

"With size of the sample, I guess we were surprised with the percentage of disks that we found data on," said Michael Kessler, CEO of Kessler International. "We expected most of the drives to be wiped -- to find one or two disks with data. But 40 drives out of 100 is a lot."

Kessler believes the drives were likely from computers sold to third-party resellers that dissassembled them and sold off the parts.

Kessler's engineers had to use special forensics software to retrieve data from some of the hard drives, but other drives contained sensitive data in the clear, having never been overwritten or erased. The data included personal documents, financial information, e-mails, DNS server information and photographs.

"The average person who knows anything about computers could plug in these disks and just go surfing," Kessler said. "I know they found a guy's foot fetish on one disk. He'd been downloading loads and loads of stuff on feet. With what we got on that disk -- his name, address and all of his contacts -- it would have been extremely embarrassing if we were somebody who wanted to blackmail him."

Kessler said his company specifically avoided buying drives whose sellers indicated that the drives had been erased.

Kessler International offered this breakdown of the kind of data it retrieved: Personal and confidential documents, including financial information, 36%; e-mails, 21%; photos, 13%; corporate documents. 11%; Web browsing histories, 11%; DNS server information, 4%; miscellaneous data, 4%.

"We were more concerned with searching for people's identification, which is what we found, but we were surprised by all the corporate spreadsheets and business finance records we found," Kessler said.

The forensics firm even found one company's "secret" recipe for French fries, Kessler said.

In recent years, hard drives have shown up on eBay that contain all kinds of sensitive data. In April 2006, Idaho Power Co. learned that drives it thought had been recycled had actually been sold on eBay with the data still intact. The Boise, Idaho-based utility had used the drives in servers; when bought on eBay, the drives still contained proprietary corporate information such as memos, customer correspondence and confidential employee information.

And in 2007, a supposedly new hard drive purchased on eBay was found to contain information from the Arkansas Democratic Party.

Charles Kolodgy, an analyst with research firm IDC in Framingham, Mass., said drives from PCs are mostly easily protected even after resale by using a full-disk encryption (FDE) product, but he said prior to selling an old machine, users should still format the drive and use overwrite tools just to be sure. "But if you have FDE you don't need to be as concerned if something falls through the cracks," he said. For larger hard drives, disks should be erased using industrial degaussers. As for the drives Kessler purchased from eBay, the company plans to use a U.S. Department of Defense-grade degausser and erase the data. It will then either throw out the drives or re-use the models with sufficient capacity.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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