Save face by scrubbing your hard drive clean

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 September, 2005, 12:00am

Personal data and images left on a second-hand PC could come back to haunt you

The press depicts data theft as a slick hi-tech crime. As a result, many may assume it is conducted on a purely digital level.

In fact, the theft can be a gritty affair carried out by scavengers and opportunists. Thinking about it as a 'virtual' crime only makes one more likely to make a crass mistake.

A drinking buddy of mine recently put his clapped-out laptop up for sale on eBay. He could not wait to get rid of the relic.

He thought no more about it until, with a start, he remembered what material still lurked on the hard drive. Let's just say that a rather candid video of him and a squeeze lingered in a remote corner.

Doubtless, soon the images will be circulating on a free file-sharing system. Maybe soon my friend will blossom into an amateur Asia-Pacific equivalent of Tommy Lee - without the money. Watch this space.

Meanwhile my friend has also started to wonder about some banking information - he deleted it, he thinks. He just hopes the new owner of the laptop executed an inaugural system wipe rather than rummaging around in search of porn and passwords.

The oversight my friend made must be common. Tens of millions of second-hand computer systems carrying 'sensitive' (read 'humiliating') information have become freely available on the open market thanks to negligence (read 'stupidity'). Just look at these breaches, all of which have occurred in the past couple of years.

On the financial side, a BlackBerry that once belonged to Morgan Stanley was sold on eBay and, among other information, turned out to contain the names and numbers of customers. Another Morgan - Morgan Grenfell - also came a cropper when it discarded computers and exposed the financial records of almost 5,000 clients, including rock royal Sir Paul McCartney (imagine how the 'richest man in rock' reacted).

Other security breaches have an embarrassingly personal twist. In North Carolina, a study of discarded state computers uncovered that almost two-thirds of the hard drives still had data that included social security numbers, bank-account numbers, a National Guard roster and ... pornography.

Not to be outdone, Kentucky discovered it was poised to sell computers that had yet to be purged of medical information containing the names and sexual partners of Aids patients.

Such slip-ups are a data thief's dream - they mean he or she does not need to be geeky and work out how to hack a live system. Instead, the miscreant just has to buy used equipment or forage trash to access sensitive files in minutes.

'The information left on old computers is a treasure trove for identity theft thieves,' said Stampp Corbin, the chief executive of RetroBox, an Ohio-based firm which recycles computers from Fortune 500 companies.

Mr Corbin stressed the need for hardware conservation. Resist the temptation to trash your computer. The reason: all computers have some functional value. Mr Corbin said that he found it amazing that the reuse of information technology was not mandatory.

'Given the number of technologically developing countries and the percentage of the world that does not have access to technology, how can someone in good conscience throw away a computer that could be effectively used by someone else?' he said, underlining that the waste only deepened the digital divide.

So sell your computer but only after covering yourself. Scrubbing can save face and money.