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More Than Half Of IT Pros Employ Insecure Data Wiping Methods

Recent study shows most enterprise IT professionals incorrectly believe emptying a Recycle Bin or reformatting a computer drive permanently erases data.

A recent study found that nearly half of IT pros surveyed don't know how to permanently erase data from a drive, leaving potentially confidential and sensitive data languishing on devices.

The study by Blancco Technology Group, which surveyed over 400 IT professionals, found that 51% of respondents believe emptying a Recycle Bin permanently deletes files. When asked whether they believe performing a quick format and/or full reformat of a computer’s entire drive would permanently erase data, another 51% replied "Yes."

"I was surprised by how many IT professionals did not understand the difference between 'deleting' and 'permanently erasing' files," says Richard Stiennon, chief strategy officer of data erasure company Blancco Technology Group. "Part of the problem is that the terms 'delete' and 'erase' are confusing and misleading."  

Dragging files into and emptying a Recycle Bin on computers or reformatting drives doesn't erase data from that computer. "These methods only mark the disk space as reusable so data isn't fully wiped and can be recovered easily with the use of free data recovery tools," he says. Erasing data involves overwriting data on a storage device multiple times to render it fully unrecoverable, he adds.

Data removal has not historically been given as much weight threat-wise as malware, extortion hacks, backdoor attacks, and accidental insider threats, for example. That could be one reason we're seeing such a high percentage of IT pros who don't know how to properly erase data, Stiennon says.

When it comes to actually wiping company-owned computers, 22% of respondents say they reformat the entire drive, and 31% wipe individual files by using the "delete" button and dragging the files to the Recycle Bin. In other words, 53% of IT professionals use two ineffective and insecure methods to wipe active files.

Only 9% of respondents actually pay to use an erasure tool to permanently erase the entire drive.

Stiennon says squeezed IT budgets are keeping organizations from gaining the resources, tools, and staff to implement proper data removal methods. "[IT pros] end up using more accessible, but less secure methods and tools, which puts them in a very dangerous situation and leaves their corporate, customer, and employee data at risk of loss/theft," he says.

Despite the lack of best practices when it comes to data erasure, the study found that organizations recognize the risks of incomplete/improper data removal.

When asked to rank a list of 14 security threats by risk level on a scale of one (lowest) to 14 (highest), incomplete/improper data removal ranked at the top, at 9.44. Next in line were backdoor attacks (6.17), extortion hacks (6.42), malware (6.23), and accidental insider threats (6.60).

Steinnon believes that this newer focus on proper data erasure is a positive sign for the state of data security and privacy. "It suggests that organizations may be starting to change the way they think about and approach how data is managed across its entire lifecycle – from creation to collection to storage to archival to transfer to destruction."

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Emily Johnson is the digital content editor for InformationWeek. Prior to this role, Emily worked within UBM America's technology group as an associate editor on their content marketing team. Emily started her career at UBM in 2011 and spent four and a half years in content ... View Full Bio

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