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N.J. Nearly Sold Used PCs With Personal Data

State computers packaged for public auction contained social security numbers, the names and addresses of children involved in child abuse cases, and other personal information, an audit revealed.

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Social security numbers and names and addresses of the children involved in child abuse cases were among information left on used PCs that the state of New Jersey readied for sale, according to an audit.

About 80% of used PCs that various state agencies were about to put up at auction contained personal and confidential information, according to an audit (PDF) released this week.

Auditors tested hard drives of computers packaged for public auction and found information that also included names, addresses, and phone numbers of children placed outside of the parental home, and a list of computer sign-on passwords for state employees.

They said they found this type of information on 46 of 58 hard drives tested, or 79% of the PCs, according to the audit, which was done from July 2008 through December 2010.

Auditors criticized officials for the security risks presented by not properly disposing of the information on the computers. "The availability of such confidential personal information and sensitive business information to third parties . . . presents security risks to the affected individuals and State agencies," according to the report.

The problem of properly scrubbing PCs of personal data before sale or re-use is an old one that continues to exist at all levels of government.

At the federal level, NASA released 10 PCs to the public without properly removing sensitive data from their hard drives, according to an Office of the Inspector General report released in December.

Ed Stukane, chief marketing office with IT asset recovery service provider PlanITROI, said in an email that the problem remains persistent because many companies and government agencies don't have formal IT asset disposition policies in place. "As IT assets are retired, the company or government agency should have set policies that address wiping data internally, removing and destroying drives," he said. Alternatively, they can choose a service provider to do asset disposition for them.

Stukane added that if companies try to properly scrub hard drives and find that they can't be wiped clean, they should be removed and destroyed.

To help mitigate these types of situations, he recommended that companies keep track of all IT assets and maintain an up-to-date inventory, as well as have a dedicated plan to assure that assets are properly sanitized before equipment is redistributed in any way.

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