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Second-Hand Drives Yield First-Class Data

Study shows companies, users still vulnerable to data theft via unerased, recycled hard drives

If you think stolen laptops are a threat to your organization, you'd better double-check the PCs and hard drives you've sold, trashed, or given away.

In a newly-published study of more than 300 hard drives obtained in auctions and computer fairs all over the world, university researchers found "an alarming level of sensitive information" remains on second-hand long after they are disposed of.

The study, released yesterday, was conducted by the University of Glamorgan in the U.K., Edith Cowan University in Australia, and BT's Security Technology Research Group.

The researchers purchased the hard drives in various used computer venues in Australia, Germany, North America, and the U.K. They then studied the drives to see what data they could still access on second-hand disks.

What they found was a surprising array of data that should have been erased long before the drives were sold or tossed. Some of the data included payroll information, employee names and photos, IP addresses, network information, mobile phone numbers, copies of invoices, and financial information such as bank and credit card accounts.

The researchers did not publish figures to show how many of the 300 drives held sensitive data, and officials could not be reached for comment today. The team did say that the results "were an improvement" on the numbers in 2005, which was the first year the universities conducted the study. Andrew Blyth, who led the research team at the University of Glamorgan, said, "It is obvious [from the data] that there are millions of hard drives on public sale that still contain highly confidential material."

Companies have been struggling for some time with the problem of erasing sensitive data from hard drives, which is a time-consuming process that is difficult to do thoroughly. Last month, some IT pros took heart when a prototype "trash can" was developed, promising a quick and comprehensive means of erasing the drives. (See A Garbage Can for Hard Drives.)

Apparently, however, many companies still are not completing the task of wiping out sensitive data from their hard drives. Andy Jones, head of security technology research at BT, chastised IT departments and users in a written statement upon the publication of the study results.

"Given the level of exposure that the subject has received in recent times, the availability of suitable tools to ensure the safe disposal of information, increasing legislative pressure, and the increasing literacy of computer users, it is difficult to understand or explain why there is such poor implementation of this knowledge and tools in ensuring that disks are effectively cleaned before they are disposed of," Jones said.

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading

  • BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA)