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03-12-2011, Avansic - Corporate
How to Throw Away Your Digital Devices

With spring cleaning just around the corner, many people will face a decision about how to throw away or recycle their electronic devices without putting their personal information at risk. Although it is difficult to destroy digital information, there are ways to make it economically infeasible to retrieve data.

Obligation to Preserve Data
Of course, anyone considering data destruction must be keenly aware of their obligation to preserve information relevant to a lawsuit. This holds true even for cases that may not have been filed yet; the landmark e-discovery case Zubulake vs. UBS Warburg states that the obligation to preserve begins when you “know or should have known” about impending litigation. Current case law has made it clear that erring on the side of preservation is the best practice, and many in the e-discovery industry expect the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to specifically address preservation in the near future.

Identifying Devices and Target Data
When beginning the process of digital device disposal, the first thing is to recognize how many devices store personal information. Most people correctly assume that their computer and cell phone contain such data, but so do printers, fax and copy machines, mp3 players, tablets, gaming consoles, GPS systems, and alarm or surveillance systems.

The second thing to recognize is the sheer amount of private information that may exist on digital devices including bank account information, social security and credit card numbers, physical addresses, passwords, and confidential business documents.

The third thing is to decide the future usability of the digital device. Preparing a computer for donation is very different than sending it to an electronics recycler or the city dump. Also consider that computers, monitors, and other digital devices have components that may be hazardous to the environment and many cities have electronics recycling programs to reduce those risks.

Effectiveness of Data Destruction
There are multiple methods of destroying data with varying levels of effectiveness. Simply deleting a file from a computer makes it fairly easy to recover, often by removing it from the “Recycle Bin”. Recovering a file from an emptied “Recycle Bin” makes it more difficult and retrieving a file from a computer hard drive that has been wiped requires expert intervention. If a drive has been physically damaged, either intentionally or otherwise, it may be necessary to examine the drive under a microscope in a clean room – a very expensive and lengthy process. One of the more spectacular examples of data recovery comes from the space shuttle Columbia: a large percentage of data was recovered from hard drives on the shuttle after the explosion. In this case, there was significant motivation and almost unlimited resources to handle the project.

Methods of Destruction
The most basic way to remove data from a computer hard drive is to use a commercial wiping program. These are readily available on the internet or at a local computer shop and range in price from free to several hundred dollars. Look for programs that perform a complete data wipe and begin the destruction process by booting from a CD. Remember that these programs are not designed to be reversible and any information not backed up will be lost unless you are willing to pay handsomely for recovery.

Physically damaging a hard drive is another option, including drilling holes in the platters or shattering the drive. Remember that these steps make recovery a very expensive prospect.

For cell phones, remove and physically destroy the SIM card in order to remove personal information stored there. Additionally, you can reset the phone to factory settings. Note that certain data may still be recoverable even after this setting change.

Solid state memory, such as thumb drives, digital camera storage cards, flash drives and phone media, is much more difficult to definitively erase. In fact, simply deleting all files or formatting the media does not remove data from physical storage. Some camera memory cards come with software allowing a user to recover all pictures from a memory card that has been formatted. Tech-savvy consumers using newer media and technology such as TRIM solid-state hard drives may be able to directly delete stored data but it is not an easy process. A good way to dispose of flash devices is to physically destroy the circuit board and chips.

Local and national companies may be available to destroy your data, up to and including shredding computer hard drives. Ensure that you understand their destruction methods and their tested recovery rates before embarking on a project.

Digital devices can still have useful second lives without danger to personal information if they are carefully handled prior to recycling or disposal.

Removing hard drives from computers for donation is the only way to definitively protect personal data. Many individuals purchase a small new hard drive for computers given to nonprofits or educational institutions. For donating cell phones, remove and destroy the SIM card as indicated above and reset the phone to factory settings.

The lifespan of a typical digital device continues to shorten just as the amount of information stored on those devices increases. Therefore, the issue of throwing away digital devices while protecting private information becomes an issue. In order to determine whether to donate or destroy a digital device, consider the type of information contained within, it’s relative value, and your willingness to share that data. Armed with that information, you can decide how thoroughly data must be erased given the aforementioned options. Remember that you would not donate a file cabinet full of old financial records or other personal information without first ensuring it was empty – the same should hold true for your digital devices.