Weapons of mass data destruction

Private files

There's more to IT security than protecting the valuable data an enterprise obtains, uses and stores. How you dispose of it when the hardware it's sitting on reaches end-of-life should be a major concern too.

These days, only a fool thinks clicking 'delete' is enough to wipe data from a hard drive or that a quick disk reformat will do the trick. Smashing the drives with a hammer isn't a smart move either. So how should the enterprise tackle this problem, and what are the best weapons of data destruction? IT Pro has been investigating.

End-of-life errors

When NHS Surrey was fined 200,000 by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) last year for unwittingly releasing data on 3,000 patients to the general public, the enterprise should have sat up and paid attention.

The organisation had switched from an approved IT equipment disposal firm to another company that offered to destroy its data for free. To make money from the deal, the latter company retains any proceeds from the subsequent sale of the hardware.

It all went wrong for NHS Surrey, according to the ICO, when it failed to put in place any contractual governance over the security of that data disposal.

For example, the data protection watchdog said NHS Surrey should have carried out a proper risk assessment and put in place a written agreement with the provider stating the hard drives would be physically destroyed. Furthermore, it said certificates containing the serial numbers of each drive that had been destroyed should have been issued too.

These days, only a fool thinks clicking 'delete' is enough to wipe data from a hard drive or that a quick disk reformat will do the trick.

"[It should have] taken reasonable steps to ensure compliance with those measures, such as effectively monitoring the destruction process and maintaining audit trails and inventory logs of hard drives destroyed by the company based on the serial numbers in the destruction certificates for each individual drive," the ICO said.

Now this may sound a tad harsh on NHS Surrey who, after all, did have written assurances from the company concerned that the data would be securely disposed of. However, the Data Protection Act (DPA) clearly states data controllers have to take appropriate technical and organisational measures against unauthorised or unlawful processing of personal data.

The DPA specifically requires 'outsourced processors', which includes anyone disposing of equipment containing data covered by the Act, provide sufficient guarantees to meet the technical and organisational measures bit mentioned previously.

It would appear the third party in the NHS case was crushing the hard drives before selling on the computers in the belief this constituted securely disposing of the data held upon them. The fact purchasers were able to find data on them would suggest not all drives were removed and crushed. But, even if they were, it would have been no guarantee the data was actually permanently erased.

Davey Winder

Davey is a three-decade veteran technology journalist specialising in cybersecurity and privacy matters and has been a Contributing Editor at PC Pro magazine since the first issue was published in 1994. He's also a Senior Contributor at Forbes, and co-founder of the Forbes Straight Talking Cyber video project that won the ‘Most Educational Content’ category at the 2021 European Cybersecurity Blogger Awards.

Davey has also picked up many other awards over the years, including the Security Serious ‘Cyber Writer of the Year’ title in 2020. As well as being the only three-time winner of the BT Security Journalist of the Year award (2006, 2008, 2010) Davey was also named BT Technology Journalist of the Year in 1996 for a forward-looking feature in PC Pro Magazine called ‘Threats to the Internet.’ In 2011 he was honoured with the Enigma Award for a lifetime contribution to IT security journalism which, thankfully, didn’t end his ongoing contributions - or his life for that matter.

You can follow Davey on Twitter @happygeek, or email him at davey@happygeek.com.