Food Forum: Protecting sensitive data

As thieves become more advanced, retailers must be careful to purge customer data and other information before discarding hard drives.

By Andrew Kelleher

Hackers and data thieves are well aware that a treasure trove of customer files and other sensitive data reside on retailers’ computers. The need to secure this data becomes especially critical when retailers dispose of hard drives that are outdated or no longer functioning.

Because the information security field is my home turf, I am troubled by all the bad online advice for destroying used drives. “Bash them with a hammer in the parking lot,” says one blogger. “Toast them with a blowtorch,” says another. “An acid bath is the way to go,” says a third.

Effective hard drive destruction is best accomplished with proven equipment that is safe, easy to use and reliable. Data-recovery technology continues to advance and there are many techniques for recovering information from seriously damaged drives.

If account numbers or other sensitive records fall into the hands of identity thieves, there is the possibility of a lawsuit from an individual harmed by the release of his/her private information. Hard drives can also contain information your competitors would love to see, such as price lists, sales figures, customer names, memos drafted in preparation for bidding, etc.

All retailers have to replace computers from time to time — more frequently as newer technology makes them obsolete.

Just one hard drive can contain hundreds of thousands of files. When a digital file is “deleted” from a computer, the information actually remains on the drive, as do “deleted” e-mail messages and records of all online activity. Lock old drives in a secure location prior to destruction and keep records.

I strongly recommend instituting a comprehensive information-security program— written, mandatory procedures carried out by trusted, properly trained employees or a security service and supervised by management. Such procedures should include detailed recordkeeping and labeling that states, for example, the serial number of each drive, the computer from which it was removed, the date it was removed and destruction date and methods.

There are a number of options for the safe removal of data:
Overwriting the drive. “Disk-wiping” software, when carefully chosen and used with patience by a trained and trusted individual, can replace stored data with a pattern of meaningless characters.

Degaussing. The degausser must have a high enough coercivity rating (magnetic power) to overcome the drive’s magnetic field and completely erase its stored information.

Crushing. Crushers deform drives with conical steel punches or similar devices. This is a good option for retailers with a low volume of drives.

Shredding. Hard-drive shredders rip drives to randomly sized strips. Some data could be retrieved from the shreds by a determined thief, but with great difficulty.

Disintegration. Rotary knife mills cut shreds of the drive into smaller and smaller pieces until they are unrecognizable and unreconstructible.

Some businesses will outsource the destruction of their hard drives. Retailers who hire an outside firm to handle this process should thoroughly evaluate a destruction service before signing the contract. Here are some questions to ask:

1. Will the service pick up your hard drives and transport them in locked, trackable transport cases with tamper-proof security tags?
2. Upon arrival at the destruction facility, will your items be carefully inventoried and stored in a locked, monitored area?
3. Are job applicants thoroughly screened?
4. Is the facility monitored around the clock by security cameras?
5. What destruction methods will be used?
6. What proof will you have that items were actually destroyed?
7. Is the facility fully bonded and insured, and to what limits?
Although information-security programs will differ according to facility size and mission, every field of endeavor these days must address the disposal of sensitive electronic records.

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