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Politics aside, government data theft case highlights importance of proper disk destruction

Politics aside, government data theft case highlights importance of proper disk destruction

 

The phenomena of shred days – events where government agencies or nonprofits bring out shredders to help members of the community properly dispose of sensitive documents – has changed in light of our increasingly digital world. Now, many shred days aren’t just about paper, but also hard disk drives. Encouraging the public to shred their hard disk drives can be beneficial – after all, many people won’t have drives containing data that is valuable enough to be worth retrieving after the disk has been shredded. However, these types of events have a problematic side effect – they can create a belief that shredding a hard disk is enough to make the data on it inaccessible.

Physical destruction by shredding or crushing a disk is not good enough to make data inaccessible, an issue that is particularly evident in a potential data theft occurrence involving IT staffers associated with members of the House of Representatives.

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Destroying hard drives isn’t enough to keep data from retrieval
The case in question is still developing. To avoid getting into a political and criminal discussion, let’s focus on clear facts pertaining to data security. According to a Politico report earlier this year, IT support specialists working for a few House Democrats were linked to investigations associated with hard disk drives missing from the government IT configuration. Months later, the FBI was able to obtain smashed hard drives from the home of one of the individuals accused in the case, Snopes reported.

“Data deletion is not as simple as it might seem.”

The key term here is “smashed.” A hard disk that is smashed is not properly destroyed, meaning that investigators would be able to retrieve data from it if they so choose. That’s good news for the FBI, but it is also a reminder to businesses that physically destroying their data isn’t enough to keep that information safe. This isn’t to imply that any business would be engaging in questionable activities that would require a quick smashing of hard disks in the hopes of destroying data. Instead, it is a reminder that misconceptions about hard disk destruction abound, and businesses must be careful not to fall prey.

With shredding events and news stories about people trying to destroy hard disks widely available, it is easy to be mislead into thinking that physical destruction, on its own, is good enough to get the job done. It isn’t. In a report for Five Thirty Eight, industry expert Matt Mitchell explained that deletion is not as simple as it might seem.

“There is no delete in the world of data,” Mitchell told the news source. “Data destruction places know how to physically destroy a drive in a manner so that other people can’t recover that data. But that’s assuming you have all the drives.”

When considering the importance of proper data security through hard drive destruction, organizations should think about not only the limitations of basic destruction methods such as shredding, but one of the key points highlighted by Mitchell – that working with third-party data destruction specialists depends on the assumption that all of the drives containing sensitive data actually go through the destruction process.

These issues put major questions around the longstanding practice of shipping hard disks out to be destroyed at the end of their service lives. The two issues that must be considered here are proper disk destruction and maintaining a chain of custody.

Businesses can't afford to take a casual approach to hard disk destruction.
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Businesses can’t afford to take a casual approach to hard disk destruction.

Data destruction done right
Shredding and other forms of physical destruction are often part of a correct data sanitization process. However, they rarely work properly when used as the exclusive method for destroying data. Instead, proper data destruction begins with disk degassing.

Hard disks function through the use of a metallic plate that is magnetically charged in such a way that it can safely rotate at incredibly rapid speeds while containing data. The magnetic charge provides the basis for information residing on the disk. Because of this, properly destroying that data depends on altering the magnetic field of the metal plate so that it can no longer properly retain information. At that point, the data is destroyed and the disk is rendered entirely useless.

Degaussers use a magnetic force to disrupt the polarity of hard disks to destroy data completely. However, it is important to understand that not all degaussers are equally powerful. Because hard disks are built around magnets and magnetic forces are fairly common, drives are constructed to be resistant to magnetic interference. In many cases, modern hard drives constructed for reliability and durability can provide high levels of magnetic resistance. A degausser is only able to destroy data if the amount of magnetic force applied by the machine is greater than the hard drive’s resistance.

“It is important to understand that not all degaussers are equally powerful.”

For businesses, choosing a degausser does not mean having to understand the magnetic resistance of each hard drive it deploys and obtain a degausser of proper power. Instead, organizations can look to industry standards set forth by reputable bodies, such as the National Security Agency, to identify degaussers that are certified for proper data destruction.

Once the data itself has been deleted, businesses can safely move on to shredding, crushing or otherwise destroying the drive itself. Because degaussing is adequate for purging data from the drive, organizations can use third-party e-waste specialists if they so choose, or they can destroy the drives in house and dispose of the remnants properly as per environmental standards.

Maintaining a chain of custody
Properly destroying data is critical, but organizations trying to safeguard information and comply with regulatory standards must maintain visibility into the location and disposition of their data at all times. This means knowing where decommissioned hard disks are, who has interacted with them, when those interactions happened and when data was destroyed. This becomes nearly impossible when relying on a third-party data destruction specialist if disks have not been degaussed prior to being shipped.

For example, drilling through the drive a few times to physically destroy it – a fairly common practice in some sectors – and then sending it for shredding creates a few problems.

  • It is extremely difficult to maintain a paper trail and fully verify that all hard disks sent to the third party have been destroyed.
  • Data will not be fully destroyed because most means of physical destruction aren’t adequate to keep information safe.
  • Plenty can go wrong during shipping, leading to disks being lost, stolen or simply tracked incorrectly, disrupting the chain of custody and creating risk.

These issues all point to the importance of properly destroying data before letting it to go to an unsupervised setting. For example, some organizations will bring in a part-time team of technicians to degauss and destroy a hard drive, a completely reasonable process. In doing so, the company should also have a member of its staff supervise this activity and verify that each disk is being handled correctly. This type of oversight is key in avoiding the problems that come with data destruction.

From shred days to data breach intrigue stories, is is clear that there are many misconceptions around data destruction. Don’t let your business fall prey to such an issue. At Proton Data, we offer NSA-certified degaussers along with crushers, shredders and similar tools to help you establish an end-to-end data destruction setup for your business. It’s time for companies to stop being casual with decommissioned hard drives and consider the best ways to protect information.

 

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