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Data disposal: Every action leaves a trace

Footprints in the sand

Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications

Comment I recently had the honour of being among a team of storage managers from large companies around the UK. Discussions centred mainly around virtualisation and maximising utilisation rates, bringing together disparate vendors' kit as a single resource pool and how to manage data growth as voice and video are brought in to the mix.

However, the area of data disposal led to some serious debate.

The vast majority were not overly concerned about the fact that a simple deletion of data leaves the data still on the disk; only the headers go, and you are at the whim of the disk controller as to how and when it overwrites the information with new data.

The main approach was that "secure deletion" of data was only needed on data disposal - i.e. on getting rid of the disk drive itself - and for this, a large hammer was the preferred approach.

But, let's look beyond the initial reaction of "why would I want to ensure secure deletion of data in an environment that I control?" and see whether a degree of paranoia is called for.

Data retention laws are becoming more commonplace, and data disclosure is being used by legal and governance bodies worldwide to ensure that things are as they should be.

With the likes of Microsoft and the UK government finding that emails do not easily disappear, maybe a better approach to secure transfer and deletion of certain types of information may be worth considering.

How about taking a fairly simplistic case? A person creates an email locally on their machine. This is then submitted and a replica is stored on the server.

The server sends this email to the recipient's server, where another copy is made, and then it is delivered to the recipient, where another copy may be created.

Should the recipient decide to forward this message, we see the same happening again: more copies (which is wasteful of storage resources anyway), and more footprints in the sand enabling anyone to trace the route of a communication even if the original message has been deleted.

The same applies to all sorts of information - transactions within databases, the creation and backup of documents and so on - and each time we take an action, we are leaving traces.

In the majority of cases, it makes no difference. The information contained within the majority of documents and emails have little real business value, and even fewer have the capability to negatively affect the corporate brand should they be uncovered.

But there will always be some. There may be the discussions around a possible merger/acquisition, there may be the in-depth analysis of the competition, there may be documents detailing specific opportunities within prospects and customers.

We may want to choose not to be forced to disclose these should a court request it. We may want to be able to regard these items as being just the same as a private person-to-person discussion, with a degree of deniability around the actual contents.

So, how can we do this? Well, we can start by ensuring that we understand the priorities of different types of information, such that only the information that really needs special handling gets the full treatment.

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