Coming back to haunt you

This week I’ve been thinking about some unexpected dangers involved in disposing of old electronic bits and pieces.

It seems that a study conducted by BT, which used to be called British Telecom, and universities in Wales and Australia, has uncovered the fact that significant numbers of electronic devices still carry sensitive information about their former owners after being disposed of.

The survey looked at relatively few devices but 43% of those still had sensitive information, that could have been used against their former owners, locked in their memories.

There was apparently one Blackberry that had belonged to an executive in a large corporation and which contained the corporation’s business plan, exhaustive details about its customers, and, as the cherry on top, the executive’s bank account and car registration numbers.

I can see how such a thing could happen when a normally careful executive starts getting those you’re-eligible-for-an-upgrade messages from his network operator. Wild-eyed with excitement, he sells the old handset, never even considering what embarrassing details might still be lodged in the thing’s brain.

British spies are very slick operators who would never sell their old cameras on Ebay, still loaded with pictures of terror suspects, their fingerprints and details, and a variety of weapons including missiles and rocket launchers.

Or so you would think, but that’s what happened earlier this month when a chap bought a camera on auction for £17 and found the compromising pictures still in its memory. I can imagine the scenes at MI6, with M being even icier than usual: “You’re a damn fool, 007!”

Its just the sort of trap that anyone could fall into as it’s easy to forget, six months down the line, that you used your phone to send your bank account number and PIN or that you sent messages to the hitman about when your spouse would be at home.

And if your old portable devices present a potential threat to you, then imagine what sort of stuff could come back to haunt you if the hard drive in your old computer fell into the wrong hands.

Hard drives eventually get to know pretty much all there is to know about you and there is a catch in that information you delete, is not necessarily gone. Deleted files go into the trash but, even if you remember to empty the trash can, the files are still be on the hard drive.

Deleted files are are not actually removed but are made invisible to casual inspection and the space they occupy is marked as being available for reuse. The files are still there, in fact, until something is written over the top of them, and they can be recovered quite easily.

Data can also be recovered from hard disks which have been reformatted and it’s not much harder to do. Disk scrubbing is apparently the only sure way of making sure your hard drive is really empty, and that involves getting hold of a program that can overwrite every bit of information on a disk with gebberish.

You might like to search on Google for ‘hard drive scrubber’ the next time you intend to dispose of a drive. I believe that Blackberries can scrub themselves but I don’t know how one would scrub other phones and PDAs.

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