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Organisations are risking seeing sensitive information ending up in the wrong hands, because they are failing to ensure that their unwanted PCs are properly datawiped.

Data is erased from less than a quarter of discarded PCs, according to UK PC recycling firm Remploy e-cycle. Seventy five per cent of 350 firms it quizzed sold or gave away unwanted PCs, but only 23 per cent wiped hard disks before getting rid of old computers. Four in ten (38 per cent) of those reformated drives before giving them away in the mistaken belief that this would prevent sensitive date from being recovered, the study found.

Many of the worst data security risk takers came from the financial services industry. Only one in eight ensured that sensitive data got destroyed, according to Remploy.

Noel Harasyn, Remploy e-cycle's general manager, said: "Quite frankly, this is deeply disturbing. It is laudable that companies are already making redundant equipment available for re-use but in the overwhelming majority of cases, they are not rendering the data on hard drives unrecoverable. Simply reformatting or overwriting once or twice as most appear to do will still allow much of the data to be recovered."

WEEE the unprepared

The survey comes ahead of legislation this Autumn which will put more pressure on companies to recycle IT equipment, rather than dumping it in landfill sites. The WEEE Directive (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) makes manufacturers responsible for recycling electrical equipment at the end of its useful life. However, research from printer manufacturer Brother suggest most companies expect to shoulder some of the cost.

Remploy's survey highlights a longstanding issue. Earlier this year a customer database and the current access codes to the supposedly secure intranet of one of Europe's largest financial services group was left on a hard disk offered for sale on eBay. The disk was subsequently purchased for just £5 by mobile security outfit Pointsec Mobile Technologies.

Pointsec purchased 100 hard disks through internet auction sites, as research into the "lifecycle of a lost laptop". It could read seven out of 10 hard-drives bought over the internet, despite the fact all of had supposedly been wiped-clean or re-formatted. The company said the exercise illustrates how easy it is for identity thieves or opportunists to access highly sensitive and valuable company information from lost laptops and hard drives.

In 2000, Sir Paul McCartney's banking details were discovered on a secondhand computer discarded by merchant bankers Morgan Grenfell Asset Management. The PC was released into the second-user market without first being wiped clean of data. ®

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Paul McCartney account details leaked on second user PC
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