Personal Data in Old Computers at Risk - NBC Connecticut
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Personal Data in Old Computers at Risk

Just because you think you've deleted something, doesn't mean it is gone.



    People looking to get rid of their old computers face concerns they could be exposing highly sensitive personal data to anyone.

    "You don't want anybody to take your social security number. You know, all the personal things that you put on your computer: the banks...everything you have online. It's extremely important," Helen Daigle said.

    Daigle and her husband Alan plan on dumping 45 years worth of technology. They wanted to take it to an electronics recycler, but the couple had concerns.

    According to a study by Kessler International, 33 percent of second-hand hard drives that are sold online are inadequately deleted. They still contain deeply personal information like medical records, tax documents, family photos, report cards, business budgets, social security numbers and even nude photos. 

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    NBC Connecticut took our own computer to experts at the University of Connecticut's School of Engineering. There, computer science professor Alex Shvartsman and his engineering students, Russ Jancewicz and Justin Neumann explained the problems facing computer owners looking to get rid of old technology.

    "It creates a false sense of security when people delete something or even purge their trash," Shvartsman explained. "You can imagine a computer disk being a book. It has a title, a table of contents and the contents. Well, deleting the files simply erases the entry in the table of contents. The information is there. All you need to do is simply look for it." 

    To prove their point, the engineers hooked up NBC Connecticut's old laptop to their lab's computer system and did what most of us do at home: dragged the documents and photos into the recycle bin and emptied it out. NBC Connecticut created a specific document to track during this process in order to show how this process works.

    After dropping the document in the trash and purging it, the engineers said it was still accessible.

    "Actually the file is still there. It's just masked out so that normal people on the computer itself don't see it as being there," Jancewicz said. "If someone wanted to get to it, they could log in using special tools and recover that file."

    Jancewicz and Neumann found NBC Connecticut's document in minutes, using a free program popular among identity thieves. This hacking program is readily available on the web, accessible by a quick Google search. Anyone can use it on any hard drive.

    "It's perfectly intact, as you expect," Jancewicz said. "This was 'permanently deleted', but we were able to recover it."

    To comprehensively wipe out your data, the engineers recommend using TrueCrypt, a free and reliable program you can download from the internet. They also warned that individuals should carefully decide what they keep on their computers and what is transmitted online.

    "We have to realize that digital data is a very resilient medium. So when you commit something to digital data, you have to make sure you really want to keep it there or you have to dispose of it," Shvartsman cautioned.

    For total peace of mind, the engineers recommend something that is far from high tech science -- they advocate smashing (or sanding down) your hard drive.

    At Green Monster in West Hartford, they do exactly that. 

    "Residential people can come in and for $10 a hard drive, they can watch us zap it with a laser that we have. Zero emissions, deeming it inoperable, data destroyed," said Joe Galiatsatos, founder of Green Monster.

    Galiatsatos and his team process hundreds of computers a day. They digitally wipe drives, shred them to piece and they will even torch a hole through them. At UConn, Shvartsman also says sanding down a hard drive until you can see your reflection is a safe method.

    Helen and Roger Daigle decided to take no risks.

    "I took the hard drives off and destroyed them myself," Roger Daigle said. "I got a big rock behind my place and I have a sledgehammer and I really took that thing apart."