Saturday, January 24, 2015

Destroyer of Data

From a hacker's point of view, I would have to say I'm a low value target. Put another way, any breach of my data isn't going to be earth shattering. Sure, I may have called someone a twit in an email, or groused about a client to a co-worker, or told my accountant how I really made out in Vegas. But even if the North Koreans or ISIS or some kid with too much time and too little sense bothered to dig into my files, short of not being able to look my mother straight in the eye, the potential for serious damage is pretty low.

Having said that, it doesn't pay to leave the keys to the car just lying around and the doors open. Like many diseases, getting your electronic laundry strung up for all to see is minor unless it happens to you. And with account numbers and the like, some serious meddling is indeed possible. So like everyone else, we have passwords and patterns, all intended to thwart any active intrusions into our electronic thingies, wherever they may live.

That's for the stuff currently in circulation. But what about the gray pile of electronic castaways that is in the corner of my office, or maybe your basement? It might be old cell phones or obsolete laptops or underpowered desk machines, each of which cost you dearly and was state-of-the-art at the time, but is now barely worth scrap. In fact, ever check the value of that pristine iPhone 3 or whistle-clean NEC Versa laptop you've been hanging on to? After you go through the questionnaire (Is the screen cracked? Is the case blemish free? Does the battery hold a charge?) the trade in value pops up at $1.25, $1.50 if you have the charger.

But I'll put twenty bucks on the table that whatever the exterior condition of the unit in question, were you to power it up you would find lots of stuff you wouldn't want in enemy hands. All those highly confidential files that you carefully protected when the machine was live are still there even if it's virtually dead. And so just tossing or recycling the lot is not advisable, at least until your scrub them of anything illegal, immoral or fattening.

Now, assuming you still have the charger/monitor/keyboard with the right plug/format/connector on it, you can take a stab at wiping them clean. Unfortunately, just hitting "delete all" won't actually work. In the inner working of computers, all that does is remove the name of the file so the space can be overwritten. All that juicy data is still sitting there, waiting for any 23 year old with a year of coding under his belt to lift easier than you can say "here's my credit card number."  

That's the situation I was in as I cleaned out my office, eventually lining up a baker's dozen of old computers that were ready to meet their electronic maker. So I downloaded a "data destruction" program and went to work. It used a Department of Defense protocol to overwrite the info on the hard drives numerous times with random letters and numbers. I think I can safely say that the odds of someone checking out a book using the library card number I had stored on my old WinBook is virtually nil.

But there were a few machines I couldn't get to power up. And if I couldn't turn them on, here was no way I could electronically cover my tracks. So I turned from the high tech method to the low tech variant. I broke out a screwdriver, opened up the case, yanked the drives out by their roots, and planned on their physical destruction.

My friend Jim is a musician and audio engineer blessed with a pair of ears I will never have. He will play something for me and say "Hear that?" I cannot, but I don't doubt that he can. Like many purists, he prefers the more nuanced and warmer sound that older technology gives him, so much so that his email signature contains the phrase "Analog Rules." But Jim, on this occasion I can do you one better. Because I am going to take those drives outside, and smash them with a sledge hammer. In this instance, analog will not only rule, it's going to kick digital's ass.


Marc Wollin of Bedford took 3 carloads of electronics to be recycled. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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