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An investigation into the disposal of computer equipment has uncovered psychological reports on school-children, confidential company data and even details of an illicit affair on hard drives that should have been wiped clean. Universities, schools and global businesses are routinely breaking the Data Protection Act by disposing of computers without removing personal data, researchers found.

The Computer Forensics team at the University of Glamorgan examined over 100 hard drives at the behest of investigative journalist Peter Warren. Some of the drives were bought from eBay, others from computer fairs and traders. Only two contained no recoverable data at all, and one of those was brand new. The previous owners of half the remaining drives had made no attempt to remove the data, and the rest had failed to remove it properly, according to Jon Godfrey, at Life Cycle Services, which contributed ten professionally cleansed drives as a blind control.

"What the university found was frightening," he told us. "Half of the owners didn't seem to care, and half didn't know how to erase their data. Over half breached the DPA because they held personal data."

The Data Protection Act requires that organisations storing personal data do so securely, and that the data is deleted when it isn't needed any more. As well as breaching the DPA, the lax disposal of hard drives could mean sensitive information falling into the hands of organised technology crime gangs in Nigeria and Russia. Godfrey also warned that much of the information on the drives could be used for identity theft.

Data recovered from a Yorkshire primary school included names of pupils and details of their school reports. Other information recovered includes: financial details that could leave the companies concerned open to fraud or blackmail; passwords of senior company executives; details that would allow hackers access to central systems of universities including Southampton and Hull.

Between two and three million personal computers are disposed of every year in the UK, according to Godfrey. "If you extrapolate from these results, that is a huge amount of information leaching out," he said.

Godfrey noted that although the research was conducted by a computer forensics team, this should not imply that the data is difficult to recover. Any computer literate individual could download a data reconstruction tool and learn how to recover the data within half an hour, he said, adding that it would be a totally trivial exercise for anyone familiar with Unix.

Individuals as well as companies need to take care when disposing of hard drives. There is readily available software, such as Blancco, which will get rid of everything on your hard drive to the highest standards approved by the government. If you don't want to do that, Godfrey says, take a hammer to the hard drive before you chuck out your old PC.

"The shelf life of the data is longer than that of the PC. We saw that with the case of Paul McCartney's old hard drive showing up. If it can happen to him, it can happen to anyone," Godfrey concludes. ®

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