The Revenge of the Hard Drives

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A few years ago, the company that I worked for provided me with a new computer-rather, shall we say a new old computer. That's not remarkable. What was extremely interesting was that the company's president was among the previous owners.

The immediate past owner, another editor, had left for a better job, aided in his search by a cover letter, resume, and salary request, which he had left on the computer. The owner before that, the president, had left a lot more. Most of it was stale Excel sheets for individual products and a few letters. The most interesting thing was his proposed compensation plan for his next venture, but it was the formula, not the numbers. The outcome was pretty harmless (although still good reading).

But old drives can come back to haunt the former owners. A recent article in PC World spells out the degree to which accountants and tax practitioners, who rely on their drives for storage of confidential data, can find numbers floating out into the world out of control. The article, "Hard Drives Exposed," by Tom Spring, centers around the activities of a group of techies who routinely scavenge computer components at the town dump. (Well, they probably call it a recycling center these days.) These people frequently get a way-too-good look into the businesses of the previous owners.

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Spring, who decided to test the used-computer market, describes his own findings: "A Boston computer store sold us a hard drive previously owned by an accountant-and crammed with four years' worth of his clients' payroll and tax information and employee Social Security numbers." The writer routinely found confidential business, medical, and legal records, including credit card and bank account numbers, on the discarded units.

That ought to sober up anybody in the accounting and tax business. Okay, the probability is that your competitors aren't going to be the ones picking through your records. But you have to presume that word of this could get back to clients, who won't be particularly happy to know that someone just acquired their financial history, however old.

A lot of the problem gets back to ignorance of the basic rules of computer usage, the main one of which is that deleting a file does not mean destroying data. Those who remember (or in this business, still use) MS-DOS know that in deleting a file, DOS simply replaces the first letter of the file name with an asterisk. It's sort of like taking down the street sign so somebody cannot locate a house. If you know the name of a deleted file, say "taxes," you can simply spell it "*axes," and it can be retrieved with ease. So imagine what somebody with a little skill in computers can do to old drives.

The solution is to buy a utility that wipes the drive, because the only way that information can be destroyed is by overwriting it. (And the more your disk is used the more the data from a single file is scattered over the platters-fragmented, as they say in the business-making it harder to overwrite simply through usage.)

A lot of times, it's easy to get caught up in grand schemes, elaborate products, enterprise-wide concepts, and expensive solutions. But we should take time to think about simple problems with easy solutions that need just as much attention because they can cause major damage to business-sometimes more than the big stuff because we aren't on the lookout for them.

Robert Scott - Editor

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