When the State of New Jersey was preparing to put a bunch of old computer equpiment up for auction to the public, it didn’t realize it was about to auction off the private data of members of that public. State Comptroller Matthew Boxer was reviewing the sale of hundreds of computers that is a usual occurrence in the state office when he discovered that the hard drives in 79% of the machines had tons of private data on them still! The sale was stopped thanks to the auditor’s investigation, but there is little doubt that the state had already been selling computers with confidential data on them for some time.
The private data of thousands of people included confidential information such as tax returns, files on abused children, employee evaluations, and social security numbers. The risk of data being leaked on computer systems in the public and private sectors like this remains high due to the regular practice of giving away or auctioning off used equipment. Sensitive data continues to be a hot target for identity theft and criminal activity, and when it resides on hard drives on machines that continue to get overlooked, the nefarious pickings are good. With public sector agencies being so vulnerable, of course some practices and procedures are in place, but in some cases such as this one in New Jersey auditors found that staff failed to follow ‘data stewardship’ practices. The risk of private data in discarded systems being vulnerable to theft and general security breaches remains high.
This story is a reminder of the importance companies, public sector offices and individual users need to place on protecting information as systems move around. Simply hitting delete is not sufficient to safeguard personal and confidential information. It is a challenge to control discarded computer gear as it may pass through many hands and vendors on its way to being destroyed, recycled, resold, or refurbished. Those interested in protecting their data security can check out CBL’s free Data Shredder software. It’s a disk wiping app to securely delete data off a hard drive so it cannot be recovered. There are a number of international data erasure standards to choose from in Data Shredder. Concern about data privacy will continue to grow as more and more data is stored, so taking action to safeguard confidential information should become commonplace for both the corporate and public sectors and personal users and this story out of New Jersey is a good reminder of the existing need going forward.