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Old computers and sensitive data – wipe before disposing

February 12, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

I am probably not alone in this. I have several old computers that no longer function. They’re old, have obsolete operating systems, won’t boot, probably contain personal information that I don’t want others to see, are simply taking space – and I don’t know what to do with them.

So when I heard that Computer Aid is looking for old computers that it can refurbish and donate to the third world, I thought my problems were solved. David Barker, CEO of Computer Aid, explained: “We are always on the lookout for donations of PCs and monitors. Just one refurbished computer can provide 6,000 hours of further use – enough to educate 60 children to a vocational level in IT and significantly increase their employment prospects. Alternatively, one computer can also allow a rural doctor to communicate with specialists in cities, thereby allowing them to provide life-saving medical treatment which they might otherwise have been unable to diagnose or carry out.

“Rather than recycling your ICT and especially your monitors, please consider donating your equipment to Computer Aid so that we can send your unwanted PCs to those who need them the most.”

This is good. Especially when you notice that ‘all donated equipment is data-wiped to US and UK military standards using Ontrack Eraser data wiping software. Donating to Computer Aid is also a carbon efficient means of IT disposal since reusing a PC is 20 times more energy-efficient than recycling.’ Useful and a good cause to boot – so I heartily recommend that companies upgrading their existing equipment should consider using Computer Aid.

Robert Winter

Robert Winter, chief engineer, Kroll Ontrack

But it doesn’t work for me. Computer Aid is looking for equipment that it can refurbish. My old heaps are beyond that; but I certainly need something like Ontrack’s Eraser data wiping software to clean the drives before I do anything at all. So I spoke to Ontrack’s Chief Engineer Robert Winter to see if there is any easy remedy. There isn’t.

The problem, he told me, is endemic. Last year Kroll Ontrack found that two-thirds of the computers it randomly purchased from eBay still contained sensitive information from their previous owners. And a separate survey found that less than half of businesses regularly deploy a method of erasing sensitive data from old computers and hard drives.

“Companies need to plan for disposal before they need to dispose of their equipment,” he explained. Apart from anything else, this would help to demonstrate regulatory compliance – disposing of equipment with personal information still contained could lead to a heavy fine from, in the UK, the ICO. “As part of that plan, “continued Winter, “Ontrack’s Eraser could be used to wipe the data before disposal. It overwrites the whole disk with three separate and different patterns, leaving the data completely irretrievable.”

I thought of my own problem. I can’t boot the computers, so how can I wipe them? “We supply our software both on CD and USB stick. You can boot from these, so that the whole disks can be wiped. Companies buy a license, and during the lifetime of the license they can wipe a disk whenever it is necessary.” It seems an excellent solution. If you have old computers that still work, you can donate them to Computer Aid and the data will be cleared with Ontrack’s Eraser for you. But if your business plan involves re-selling the equipment to recoup some of the cost, then you can still use Eraser under your own license.

It’s just that it doesn’t work for me. I just have a couple of personal computers that aren’t good enough for Computer Aid and don’t warrant the cost of a business license from Ontrack. But maybe, just maybe, there’s a business opportunity here. USB sticks are not expensive. Could some entrepreneurial company take something like Eraser, put it on a bootable stick, and allow, say five uses for the home market?

Kroll Ontrack’s Eraser
Computer Aid International

Categories: All, Security Issues
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