As I prepared for the move to the new apartment and home office I found that I have old bills, tax records and other personal information going back at least a decade. I had a small collection of discs: CD-ROMs, DVDs and even Zip discs with information I never accessed. I even had a couple of older PCs that I decided I didn’t need to move.
The question was how to safely get rid of all this stuff—with the primary concern being my personal information. There were mountains of old credit card bills, travel receipts and enough other data on me to provide a would-be identity thief with everything to get started.
I’ve heard all the security experts tell me what to do and I have tested various shredders. But for every solution another security expert will tell you that’s not safe enough. For example, I saw Frank Abagnale Jr. –Leonardo DiCaprio played him in the movie “Catch Me If You Can”—say that he could piece together the front page of The New York Times in nine hours after being passed through a multi-cut shredder! That’s impressive, but I doubt even a hard core identity thief (such as Abagnale in his criminal youth) would spend even an hour to piece together my phone records, which I should add would include multiple pages of data. That said, I never feel too safe.
When it comes to protecting your data, whether it is paper printouts or electronically stored, you can never be too careful and miracles do happen. CNN recently reported that a computer hard drive from the space shuttle Columbia was recovered after its tragic crash in 2003, and eventually 90 percent of the data was restored. That’s impressive, but there are plenty of low-tech ways to ensure that your personal information is properly destroyed.
The best method for destroying paper is to burn it, of course. Local laws and environmental concerns are an issue, especially as a lot of the paper today contains a variety of inks, many of which can be toxic when burnt. I wouldn’t advise burning unless this is the method of last resort. Personally, I go the other route and let my files get a little wet and wild. After using a simple shredder or sometimes just tearing old bank statements in quarters, I douse a reasonable-sized plastic wastepaper basket with warm soapy water. Most household cleaning products will remove some of the ink. Wait a half and hour and you get a dirty sludge of paper and wastewater. Of course this is only slightly less environmentally unfriendly than burning, but I’m not producing volumes, and most home office users won’t either. The result is impossible to put back together, and I doubt even Frank would be up to the challenge.
For old CD-ROMs and DVDs you can use a heavy-duty shredder, but frankly this akin to the planned obsolesce for the product. Shredding discs will wear out the cutting blades in no time so I’d recommend that you score the service side of the disc with a knife. Most recordable CD-ROMs don’t have the same protective coating as those produced in an industrial plant. The result is that the foil, which contains the core of the information, can be scratched off fairly easily. Use caution as the foil can flake off and you won’t want to inhale or ingest this stuff. Alternatively, discs can be cracked in half and all it takes is a single break. I don’t recommend doing this because some discs will bend and require a lot of effort to crack while others will shatter with even the slightest bend, sending sharp shards of plastic in all directions.
With hard drives the only way to be sure the data is gone is to physically destroy the drives. This might sound drastic, but the aforementioned CNN article proves that if a disc drive can survive a crash from space then your methods to “format” it won’t do the trick. I’ve read of silly suggestions such as reformatting and then filling with stupid data such as copying a single photo over and over again until the drive is filled. This in theory would mean that private data has been essentially copied over. But who knows what might linger in the digital world inside the drives.
So the alternative is to remove the drive, open it up and take it apart to destroy the heads and actual disc. This might be going a long ways toward ensuring that the data is safe, but who would have ever expected a 17-year old kid of masterminding a check cashing scam, then being hired by the FBI and making millions of dollars to tell us how we’re safe! In other words, a hammer, a knife and some water can go a long ways towards making sure no one ever sets eyes on your data again!