Stop thief! How someone else ended up with your valuable data

Thursday, April 15, 2004

A few months ago, you or your company upgraded to a new computer, you deleted your files or you formatted the hard drive and donated the computer to charity, or worse -- you simply dropped it into a dumpster and forgot about it.

You discover today, months later, that a competitor has gotten his hands on your client list and is trying to take those clients away from you. Or worse -- someone has opened accounts in your name and ran up large amounts of debt. How could someone have done this? Where did the data he has come from? How about your old hard drive? Does this sound unlikely? Well, it shouldn't.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, there were over 1.2 million identity theft victims in 2002, and every 79 seconds someone in the United States was the victim of this crime. Discarded computer equipment has been identified as a major source of valuable personal information in identity theft crimes.

All too often companies and individuals dispose of older computer equipment without any thought as to what important information they may be giving away. Formatting a hard drive is not enough to keep a determined individual from getting your files. Formatting simply lets the computer know that the data on the hard drive can be overwritten -- the data is still there and can be recovered.

Programs exist to write repeated data values to the entire hard drive or "wipe" the hard drive, and for most people this type of process is all that is required. The Department of Defense (DOD) has come up with standards for removing data of hard drives and other magnetic material. DOD standard 5220.22-M is the standard established to address this issue. The standard basically determines how many times, and what type of data must be written to the magnetic media in order to consider it securely removed.

There are many software programs available commercially that will perform this task for you automatically, most are expensive. Considering that the average company will only replace computers every few years, having someone else perform this service is much more cost efficient. However, if you are hiring a company to perform this task be sure that they are using DOD-level software or your data may still be at risk.

One final caveat -- no technology is foolproof in removing the data that is on your hard drive. If anyone decides that they need the data off your hard drive, they can, at great expense and effort, recover some if not all of your data. The only guaranteed way to ensure your data does not end up in the wrong hands is to physically destroy the hard drive or remove it from the computer and store it in a secure location.

For the average individual or company, a DOD wipe will ensure that your data remains just that -- yours. The next time you replace an existing machine or hard drive ask your I.T. department or your technology service provider to ensure your data is removed. By taking a few simple steps you can save yourself and your company a lot of heartache and money.

Do you have an older computer that you are ready to replace? Do you have data you do not want to fall into the wrong hands? If so, call I.T. WerX and we can discuss the steps you should take to safeguard yourself. If you have any questions you would like to see addressed in this column or some topic you would like discussed, email me at or call 335-9300, and I will be glad to talk with you.

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