Kroll Ontrack recently carried out a global security study that indicated we are putting our personal information at risk far too easily. The data recovery company analysed used drives to see if any traces of data remained after the previous owners sold them. Among the drives Kroll Ontrack examined, traces of data were found on nearly half. Many of these innocent oversights allowed the new owners critical access into the previous owners’ identity.
Despite user efforts to erase data, it can often be recovered if not done properly. This makes selling personal digital devices a matter of identity protection. Kroll Ontrack’s study involved an international scope, with a diverse array of countries taking part: the US, Germany, France, Italy, the Asia-Pacific region, Poland and the UK.
For the campaign, Kroll Ontrack purchased 64 drives from various sources over eBay (private sellers/consumers) and analysed whether the used drives had been successfully wiped clean or still contained any traces of data. The study found that traces of data remained on 30 drives (47 per cent), while the remaining 34 drives had been successfully cleaned (53 per cent).
However, the likelihood of finding access to personal information was not the most concerning finding, but rather how sensitive that information often was. For the careless or uninformed user, selling personal data devices is little more than selling your identity.
The case of one drive epitomised the danger of identifying data traces. The drive had belonged to a company that used a service provider to erase and resell old drives. Despite that, the drive still contained a wealth of highly sensitive information, including user names, home addresses, phone numbers and credit card details. It contained an employee list of around 100 names that included information about work experience, job titles, phone numbers, language abilities, vacation dates and a 1MB offline address book.
The devil in the details
18 of the 64 drives examined were found to contain critical or highly critical personal information. Nearly a third (21 drives) contained personal photos, private documents, emails, videos, wedding photos, audio or music. User account information was discovered on eight drives, including log-in data such as first name and last name, contact details, email address, online account names and passwords.
Transactional data was recovered from nearly every seventh drive (9 drives). This included company names, salary statements, credit card numbers, bank account info, investment details and tax returns.
One drive still contained a record of browser history, while explicit data was located on another.
Risk extends to the business world
The personal realm was not the only one affected, as work-related information also finds its way very often onto private devices. As such, business data extracted from the drives was also not in short supply.
Six drives were found to contain critical business data such as CAD files, PDFs, JPGs, keys and passwords. Kroll Ontrack even found full online store set ups, configuration files and POS training videos in their scour of these six drives. A further five contained other work-related data: invoices and purchase orders, much of it including sensitive personal information.
Method and type
The study differentiated between HDD and SSD drives, noting the growing trend toward flash devices (SSD). Though SSD drives were by no means immune to identity risk, they tended to facilitate more successful data wipes.
Of the 64 drives purchased in total, 37 were HDD and 27 were SSD drives. Over half of the HDD drives contained traces of data while only a third of the SSD drives did.
The method previous owners used to erase the data on their drives before selling them demonstrated an all-too-common lackadaisical approach. Though erasure methodology could not be determined for every drive, at least eight had no attempt whatsoever directed at deleting its data. The general trend was evident: people are putting their identity and privacy far too easily at risk.
The best method to delete data is low-level formatting, which involves pattern filling drives at the lowest level. This method effectively resets drives back to the factory settings. Multiple overwrites provide additional security, especially when data erasure needs to meet specific legal overwrite standards. Professional products distinguish themselves by the following features: independent certifications, using internationally standard algorithms, detailed reporting and traceability of executed deletions.
The challenges of erasing SSDs
Kingston Technology, as manufacturer and expert in the field of SSDs, highlights that SSDs behave very differently from HDDs when saving data to or erasing data from them. These technological differences present their own technical challenges when it comes to securely deleting data from flash storage media. SSDs have several functions that affect the state of the stored data, such as FTL (Flash Translation Layer function), which controls the mapping of files, as well as wear levelling, Trim, Garbage Collection and always-on encryption, all of which influence the recoverability of deleted or discarded data.