The recent discovery of a computer on eBay with data on a U.S. missile system underscores the importance of securing data when it is time to retire and dispose of a machine. Enterprises need to have proper plans and oversight in place to protect their information.
When reports that data on
U.S. missile system
was found on a computer auctioned on eBay, enterprises
were provided another example of what happens when they fail to securely manage
data at the end of its life.
In this case, the consequences
were nil, as the computer in question was purchased as part of a research
project and has been turned over to the FBI. Still, the situation underscores
the importance of having policies in place to protect data that extend all the
way to the "death" of an organization's machines.
"Most companies have trouble with
data destruction because the task of hardware provisioning and inventory
control is delegated to less-experienced IT staffers who have not been trained
and do not understand the importance of destroying old data on these machines,"
said John Kindervag, an analyst with Forrester Research. "Also, it often
takes hardware such as degaussers or data wipe software that may be expensive
or take time that the enterprise doesn't allocate to the process."
In the case of the missile data,
the information was for a U.S. Army project designed by Lockheed Martin
as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). It was purchased as
research by the University of Glamorgan in the United Kingdom, Edith
Cowan University in Australia and Longwood University in the United
States. The survey, commissioned by BT,
found that more than a third of the 300-plus hard disks it examined
data that could be tied to an individual or commercial
involves developing a PC disposal process that stretches from
budgeting to the actual wiping of machines. Organizations need a policy that
will provide a chain of custody from the moment a machine is removed from service
until it is actually disposed of, Gartner analyst Frances O'Brien noted in a
report on the issue.
Before disposing of a device,
enterprises should scan it for data discovery, O'Brien wrote. There should also
be thought given to whether or not a machine can be reused internally or
sold as well as to whether software on the machine can be
redeployed (if allowable by license) before the device is sanitized, the
And sanitized the machine should
be - not simply cleared.
"Clearing data removes information
from hard drives in a manner that renders it unreadable unless special utility
software or techniques...it doesn't permanently delete the data, it just makes
the computer 'forget' about the data," O'Brien wrote. "Sanitization
is the process of removing sensitive data from media in such a way that it is
beyond the reach of all ordinary and most laboratory recovery methods."
For sensitive data, it's best to
do it using a disk degausser or seven-way random write algorithm, which some
operating systems support either through tools or the command line, noted
Forrester analyst Andrew Jaquith. There are also third-party tools that do this
as well, he said.
"There's also the physical
option," he added. "A sledgehammer to the memory card or hard disk is
quite effective. It's also usually faster and arguably more satisfying."
Another layer of protection can
also be found in encryption. Deguassing or physically shredding a drive can be
costly, said Seagate's Gianna DaGiau said. Overwriting a drive also may be
incomplete if it doesn't cover reallocated sectors or is thwarted by drive
"Some corporations have concluded
the only way to securely retire drives is to keep them in their control,
storing them indefinitely," said DaGiau, Seagate's senior manager of enterprise
security. "This cannot be considered truly secure, as large numbers of drives
in close proximity can
easily tempt employees
and lead to some drives being lost or stolen."
In the end, it all comes down to
policy and workflow, opined Forrester's Kindervag. What does an organization do
when a decommissioned machine comes into the shop?
"If a company creates a proper
workflow and provides the training and tools necessary to perform these
relatively simple tasks, then their risk of ending up in an embarrassing
situation such as the eBay one...is greatly diminished," he said.