Two-thirds of used hard drives hold personally identifiable data

New research from the Blancco Technology Group shows personal data remaining on old eBay and Craigslist hard drives long after they go out of use

Users are failing to completely delete files when recycling hard drives
Users are failing to completely delete files when recycling hard drives

Hard drives are not getting wiped of data at major firms, according to new research.  Moreover, those hard drives contain corporate information as well as data that could identify people.

Blancco Technology Group bought a random sample of 200 hard drives on eBay and Craigslist.  Investigating further, researchers found around 67 per cent of the used drives contained personally identifiable information and 11 per cent held sensitive corporate data, including company emails, CRM records and spreadsheets containing sales projections and product inventories.

The firm said its findings proved just how easy, common and dangerous it is when businesses buy back and/or resell used electronics without properly wiping all data from them. It added that firms failing to wipe drives clean before they are resold, repurposed or recycled can cause irreparable damage to customer loyalty, brand reputation and sales, both short and long-term.

Its digital forensics analysts found company emails on nine per cent of the drives, followed by spreadsheets containing sales projections and product inventories (five per cent) and CRM records (one per cent).

On 36 percent of the used HDDs/SSDs containing residual data, users previously attempted to wipe the drives clean by dragging files to the Recycle Bin or using the delete button. A quick format was performed on 40 percent of the used drives with residual data found on them.

Out of the 200 used HDDs and SSDs, only 10 percent had a secure data erasure method performed on them, according to the research.

"With the Ashley Madison hack, in particular, users who wanted to make sure all of their data was erased from the dating site put all of their trust into the site's US$ 20 'Full Delete' programme,” said Paul Henry, IT security consultant at Blancco Technology Group,

“Even though the obvious identifiers had been removed, enough information was left to expose the site's users. The big lesson for Ashley Madison – and any other type of business – should be to test that your deletion methods are adequate and to not blindly trust that simply 'deleting' data will truly get rid of all of it for good. Remaining data can still be accessed and recovered unless the data is securely and permanently erased."

In an exclusive interview with SCMagazineUK.com, Henry added that the corporate data we found on the drives is far more telling of how little businesses really understand about data security – and how little they're doing to protect and completely remove data.

“Unfortunately, we found extremely sensitive intellectual property on the used drives we analysed, which included spreadsheets containing sales projections and product inventories, as well as direct customer data and CRM records. Remember, 80 percent of employees are BYO users in their workplaces, but only 20 percent actually have policies to deal with that behaviour and the security risks that come with it,” he said.

Javvad Malik, security advocate at AlienVault, told SC that in many cases, the breach comes down to poor asset inventory and management. It is not for lack of policy in place, but lack of enforcement.

“Often times third party suppliers who may be smaller companies and not used to disposing of such sensitive data may be involved. Other times, it is because of employees looking to repurpose an old machine for personal use or sale” he said.

Jamie Moles, principal security consultant at Lastline, told SC that first and foremost companies should be using encryption on their hard disks – Bitlocker comes with Windows as standard and is entirely sufficient for the majority of users.   

“If you insert a Bitlockered drive into another computer the data is completely inaccessible without the recovery key or password,” he said.

“If a company cannot do this then they should have a data destruction policy in place that mandates the secure erasure of all hard disks before they are sold on or handed off for recycling – software to perform this task is freely available from the internet and is quite inexpensive.”