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The NSA, disk degaussers and what they mean for you

The NSA, disk degaussers and what they mean for you

 

When you think of intelligence agencies, chances are the image in your mind is faced with conflicting ideas. On one hand, popular culture – not to mention the occasional real spy story – would have us thinking that fancy gadgets and adventure are common themes. On the other hand, the bits of visibility that the general public has into organizations such as the National Security Agency show highly digital, modern office environments where users are collecting and using data from diverse environments to solve problems and understand the world around us.

At Proton Data, we exist in the middle of these two visions – we know that agencies like the NSA need data management and security tools to keep them running, but they also need some gadgets to get the job done. Our hard drive degaussers are among those tools of the trade that are emerging to disrupt longstanding practices in the intelligence sector.

Data destruction in the intelligence sector
Intelligence agencies depend on data as the lifeblood of their operations, but what do they do with that information once it is no longer useful? Perhaps just as importantly, what do they do with all the hard disks containing that data when they are decommissioned? For a long time, organizations have been forced to mix-and-match software erasure methods, encryption and physical disk destruction to create any semblance of security. The problem for the NSA and other agencies handling sensitive data is that those methods don’t fully erase information.

“The only way to fully ensure data is erased is with the proper use of magnetic fields.”

A data forensics expert can go into shards of a hard disk or get behind the layers of software erasure methods to find snippets of information that are still retained on the physical disk. This data resiliency is extremely difficult to deal with, and it stems from the simple reality that information is burned on to hard drives with lasers and read through mechanical means, making that information incredibly hardy. The only way to fully ensure data is erased is with the proper use of magnetic fields, which is what degaussers use to fully delete data from hard drives.

These gadgets come in a variety of forms, but a few methods stand out – stationary and portable. Stationary degaussers basically function as appliances that reside in one place and allow users to bring a disk to the location to have it magnetically wiped. Portable solutions, such as a degaussing wand, can be carried around in a pocket and used to immediately erase a disk with a simple swipe. A movable magnetic field generator that erases data burnt onto disks may sound a bit like science fiction, but it is precisely the kind of advanced gadgetry needed for the modern, digital intelligence agency.

Taking a look at the NSA compliance situation
We’ve taken a bit of creative license with how we’ve discussed disk destruction in intelligence settings, but the facts are clear. Agencies are gathering incredible amounts of data and must be able to destroy that information and any storage media or risk facing significant consequences. For this reason, the NSA has established strict regulations for how information will be handled, managed and governed at all times. While the agency has the mission of analyzing sensitive, private information to counter threats to the nation, it also is responsible for safeguarding the privacy of private citizens to the greatest extent possible.

“NSA officials must go beyond simply managing and securing data.”

Political leanings and ideological conversations aside, the data reality for intelligence agencies can be sobering. A Frequently Asked Questions page from the NSA answers some simple, straightforward queries about what the NSA regulates and how they do so. Along the way, the agency details a variety of interdependent legal and organizational structures that come together to govern incredibly specific and sophisticated data handling and management laws. The big takeaway is fairly simple, however, and it is that the NSA must have incredibly high levels of control over data at all times. This means being able to withstand inspections from the Office of the Inspector General and accurately report back on Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act requests.

All of these requirements add up to a situation in which NSA officials must go beyond simply managing and securing data, they need to create audit trails and lines of custody that prove unimpeachable operations every time somebody in the agency interacts with systems. An NSA document detailing the essentials of NSA compliance goes so far as to point out that any failure to maintain legal and proper operations within the agency represents a threat to national security.

The urgency of effective data handling in intelligence settings highlights the need for disk destruction solutions that offer no room for error. Aligning technology and processes to create a transparent chain of custody and surefire data destruction is critical, and Proton Data has had its machines certified for full compliance with NSA standards.

Intelligence agencies aren't the only organizations that need end-to-end visibility into data destruction workflows.
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Intelligence agencies aren’t the only organizations that need end-to-end visibility into data destruction workflows.

Applying intelligence-level controls to your business
Modern organizations are handling sensitive and private data at a staggering rate. You don’t have to be an intelligence agency to have information that could disrupt somebody’s life for the worse – not to mention cost your company heavily in fines, legal fees and reputation damages. Investing in dedicated disk degausser technologies isn’t just something for the intelligence agents out there who may need to erase a hard disk with the flick of a magnetic wand. Instead, any organization that plans to decommission hard disks or regularly adjust equipment configurations in the data center can benefit from on-site degaussers.

Shipping disks that have been wiped via software to a third-party specialist for destruction breaks the chain of custody. Proving that each disk has arrived at the external location without being tampered with and is properly deleted is nearly impossible. Conversely, putting a degausser in the room where your IT teams are taking apart devices and having them run hard disks through magnetic data wipes provides immediate, documentable data destruction. This type of process may fit within NSA regulatory standards, but it also falls in line with what many businesses need in our increasingly data-driven world.

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