Study shows recycled computers give away our most personal information


A two-month Australian study commissioned by the National Association for Information Destruction (NAID), a global, non-profit, data protection watchdog agency, has found significant amounts of personal information left on recycled computers. For the organisations recycling their drives, this is a data breach problem. For individuals, some of their most private information is at risk.

The results are even more alarming given the new Privacy Act reforms that will be effective on 12 March 2014, requiring organisations to up the ante with respect to managing and safeguarding people’s personal information. The study showed that 15 of 52 hard drives randomly purchased, approximately 30 percent, contained highly confidential personal information. And, while seven of the 15 devices had been recycled by individuals, eight had been recycled by organisations, including law firms operating in Victoria and Queensland, a government medical facility, and a community centre. All of these firms have a legal obligation to protect the public’s information.

“The study is rather simple,” said NAID CEO Bob Johnson. “We randomly purchased 52 recycled computer hard drives from a range of publicly available sources, such as eBay. We then asked a highly reputable forensic investigator, Insight Intelligence Pty Ltd, to determine whether confidential information was on those drives. The procedure used to find the information is intentionally very basic and did not require an unusually high degree of technical heroics. Had the data been properly erased, it could not have been found.”

Information on the hard drives included spreadsheets of clients’ and account holders’ personal information, including names, addresses, account numbers, confidential client correspondence, billing information, and personal medical information such as diagnoses, treatment, and prognoses. Where the computer hard drives had been previously owned by an individual they more often contained their most confidential personal details, including images of a highly personal nature and account information. Specific examples included, one drive containing detailed legal case records of a difficult family dispute, another with an entire email box with numerous emails and attachments relating to the inner most workings of a medical facility as well as one with signed documents granting access to business and personal mail from a Justice of the Peace.

“While it might be tempting to dismiss these results given the sample size,” said Johnson. “It is actually very disturbing. When you consider that the Australian Bureau of Statistics most recent estimates put the number of computers retired annually at over 15 million, the likely amount of private data put at risk in this manner is staggering. People from anywhere in the world can buy these drives online, and you can be sure the ‘bad guys’ amongst them know how to use the information for evil. With the viral nature of social media, one can only imagine what could happen if someone decided to share any highly personal images and videos they have found on these drives.”

Another troubling finding was that often, where personal information was found, there were telltale indications that someone had attempted to remove the information but failed to effectively do so. Mario Bekes, Insight Intelligence’s managing director, said proper removal of data from computer hard drives requires more than just pressing the delete button.

“Even if they try to do it properly, private individuals and businesses take a big risk by attempting to erase hard drives themselves,” said Bekes. “It is not really a do-it-yourself project.”

Bekes also encourages consumers and businesses to be careful when selecting a recycling service.

“It’s a noble idea to recycle a computer, tablet or smartphone,” said Bekes. “But it’s important to know the recycling company has the proper technical expertise and takes data destruction seriously. Unfortunately, many recyclers treat data removal rather casually.”

NAID is no stranger to such investigations. One year ago it made headlines in Australia when another commissioned study found banks and doctors’ offices were frequently discarding confidential records into commercial rubbish bins. The organisation has also commissioned similar research in the United States, Canada, and Europe over the years.

“The effective disposal of confidential information is an issue that is easily overlooked,” said Johnson. “We consider it a public service to remind policymakers and consumers of this ongoing vulnerability. Unfortunately, those who capitalise on easy access to this information are already aware of it.”

NAID has offered to provide a detailed report of the results, as well as the hard drives themselves, to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) to facilitate an official regulatory inquiry. Should the OAIC decline, the Association will ensure the hard drives are securely destroyed to protect those put at risk.A


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