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A Clean Sweep

Donating your old computers is a great idea. But make sure that when you do, there’s nothing on them that you don’t want people to see.

Many organizations face the challenge of disposing of IT equipment, particularly PCs. Until recently, the focus was primarily the environmental risk associated with careless and unregulated handling of end-of-life PC equipment.

Guidelines have been developed across Europe and in parts of Asia to handle and regulate the disposal of IT equipment, while new legislation has passed in some U.S. states and is pending in several others as well as in Canada. Now, as companies race to prepare for, and adhere to, federal and state environmental regulations, they face new concerns about hardware disposal, this time related to data security and privacy.

“Disk sanitation” is taking on greater importance as more and more data storage devices are refurbished and reenter the marketplace. According to Gartner Dataquest, about 150 million used drives were sold via secondary sales markets last year. At the same time, roughly 200 million new hard drives were shipped. That means that for every 10 new drives that enter the market, seven used ones are resold.

About a year ago, graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) published a study to examine the effectiveness of data cleansing techniques used on hard drives. They bought 158 drives between November 2000 and August 2002 from computer stores specializing in used equipment and online auctions such as eBay.

After using a number of recovery techniques available to any skilled IT professional, they found that of the 129 functional drives, only 12 percent had been properly sanitized. Intact data recovered from drives that had not been properly sanitized included 675 Word documents, 566 PowerPoint presentations, 5,000 credit card numbers and 9,500 e-mail messages.

Among the more celebrated cases where data cleansing was neglected, a press story reported that a woman purchased a used computer only to find the prescription records of 2,000 customers of Smitty’s Supermarket pharmacy, the previous owner of the drive. The state of Kentucky came under fire for discarding old hard drives that still contained databases of thousands of patients diagnosed with AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. And recently, it was reported that several North Carolina state agencies failed to properly destroy Social Security and bank account information on computer hard drives before they were offered for public sale, putting citizens at risk of identity theft.

According to the latest survey of business executives of mid-sized to large companies conducted by Granite Research Consulting on behalf of IBM Global Financing, companies rate data security as the No. 1 concern of PC disposal, even over cost, yet most are not complying with regulations or truly protecting their customers’ privacy. About 90% of companies still simply reformat disks in-house before disposal, believing incorrectly that data is destroyed in the process.

A number of factors complicate the process of cleaning or erasing data from storage devices. As reported in the MIT study, lack of knowledge and concern for the problem; lack of tools and training; non-storage hardware failure that doesn’t allow drives to be properly sanitized; and insufficient methodology and lack of redundancy in data cleansing top the list.

Making a Clean Sweep
So how does an organization ensure that data is erased from a storage device before it is disposed of or resold via used equipment markets? In addition to the safest alternative – drive destruction – there are two methods available to prevent private information from being inadvertently shared with future users.

The first is to use a magnetically-charged bulk eraser. Bulk erasers are most commonly used to erase tape-based storage devices. The process, called degaussing, takes only a few seconds to erase all data, and the tape can be reused again as if new. However, the magnetic fields created by bulk erasers aren’t typically strong enough to remove data from a hard drive.

The second, and more widely accepted, practice is to overwrite the drive’s data so that it is virtually impossible to recover. This method writes a random series of zeroes and ones to every block on the disk, thus over-writing pre-existing data. Although highly-specialized processes can sometimes be used to recover original data, it can be considered as essentially ‘erased’ for any non-advanced users without access to such rare and costly equipment.

Measuring the Financial Impact
There are two critical factors that all companies need to consider when making a decision about disk sanitation practices – cost and risk.

The cost of running sanitation programs on a fleet of computers can be prohibitive. Even in smaller organizations, the number of hard drives that need to be cleansed can be unmanageable. Most IT managers do not have the hours or staff to accomplish such a task without impacting other core business responsibilities. Should a company choose to circumvent these costs and simply destroy their drives (many of which could be re-used), they dispose of equipment that still has market value.

At the same time, companies need to recognize the significant risk associated with breaches of private information. When companies don’t properly sanitize exiting storage devices, they expose themselves to myriad public relations, legal, and business repercussions should any confidential data be leaked. Data confidentiality is protected by federal statute in certain industries. For example, in the healthcare industry, HIPAA guidelines already impose extensive rules and requirements, and penalties for non-compliance. The financial services industry is covered under a similar federal law. As federal and industry regulations adopt stricter standards, and penalties, for electronic data security, IT managers must act quickly to adopt and implement appropriate disk sanitation practices.

Outsourcing Disk Sanitation

The question of how to balance cost and risk has many organizations looking for outside help. For a growing number of companies, the answer is to outsource their entire sanitation and asset disposition process. Using a third-party vendor helps them achieve three major goals – appropriate sanitation of exiting drives, avoidance of cost/mitigation of risk associated with in-house sanitation and disposal, and getting cash for their IT that is remarketable.

Kathy Ferguson is a Business Unit Executive in the Asset Recovery Solutions division of IBM Global Financing.

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