With the amount of personal data many people keep on external hard drives and USB sticks, one would hope they'd take care to wipe these crucial devices clean before donating or selling them. According to the United Kingdom's Information Commissioner's Office, that's not the case at all.
In a press release issued today (April 25), the ICO said that of 200 hard drives, 20 memory sticks and 10 mobile phones bought from auction sites or trade fairs two years ago, 48 percent of them had not been wiped, and still contained some of their original owners' information. Out of those "dirty drives," 11 percent of them contained personally identifiable information that could be leveraged for identity theft or fraud.
In all, the computer forensics company hired by the ICO in its 2010 investigation recovered 34,000 files containing personal or corporate information. At least two of the secondhand hard drives contained scanned bank statements and passports and medical details — "enough information to enable someone to seal the former owner's identity," the ICO said in announcing the results of the investigation.
On four other hard drives, the forensics team recovered financial and health details about the employees of four organizations.
Information Commissioner Christopher Graham urged people to fully erase their personal data from any removable hard drives. And that means more than simply hitting "delete," he said.
"We live in a world where personal and company information is a highly valuable commodity," Graham said. "It is important that people do everything they can to stop their details from falling into the wrong hands."
"Many people will presume that pressing the delete button on a computer file means that it is gone forever. However, this information can be easily recovered," he added.
The ICO published a list of guidelines to help people effectively wipe their hard drives ; tips include physical destruction, secure deletion software, reformatting, sending a drive to a specialist, and restoring a drive to its factory settings.
Conducting a survey, the ICO found that 65 percent of people give away their old cell phones, computers and laptops to others when they're done with them. Forty-four percent of people give these devices away for free.