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Failure to delete data from discarded devices still a serious issue

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October 7, 2015

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Several data recovery technicians have found a whole slew of personal and sensitive information from used hard drives and mobile phones purchased from Amazon and eBay in Britain, the U.S. and Germany, and the trend appears to be increasing.

Performed by the Blancco Technology Group and Kroll Ontrack, the research once again reveals that failure to erase all personal data from discarded hard disks and mobile devices continues to be a growing issue, even years after this security topic first surfaced.

To be sure, residual data was recovered from about 35.4 percent of all the mobile phones analysed, and about 24 percent from the PCs and laptops that were checked.

The data included about 2,153 emails and 10,838 text messages. In about 53.7 percent of the devices from which data was recovered, it was equipment where the user had attempted to erase it, normally a restoration of factory settings.

As many people already know, this process does not actually overwrite or delete data and simply restores the device to its original state, meaning that the data is still readily recoverable for those with access to specialised software.

Some devices contained enough data to easily identify the original owner. Interestingly, no residual information was found on any of the Apple iOS devices analysed. So one can assume from this that Apple may have an upper hand at this, at least for now anyway.

Paul Henry, IT Security Consultant for the Blancco Technology Group, explained that the latter was down to features in Apple’s mobile technology, rather than the company's enhanced privacy feature.

“Overall, Apple devices use encrypted storage so deletion of the encryption key makes recovery impossible,” Henry explained. “But Android devices, on the other hand, do not use this method and rely upon a user overwriting data to erase it and prevent it from being recoverable. That's a major difference that people need to be aware of.”

“Users generally default to factory reset, regardless of their device’s operating system, manufacturer and model”, he added.

Data erasure failures and consumer equipment issues first surfaced in the PC world several years ago and seemingly remain a growing problem even today.

Blancco/Kroll purchased a set of several hard drives on eBay, and found that 75 percent showed that a deletion attempt was made. But about 23.8 percent were resold without any deletion method applied to them.

Files were successfully recovered from about 48.9 percent of the hard drives analysed, nevertheless.

Only about six percent of the hard disk and solid state drives analysed were erased using the random overwrite method deployed by erasure software.

This method proved completely effective in preventing data recovery from those drives.

Simply re-formatting drives is simply not enough because data can still be recovered in such cases by anyone with the right technical skills and the right software, given a bit of time and extra effort.

In total, 122 devices were analysed, 102 hard drives, 20 mobile phones and 7 tablets. This is something that users need to take into serious consideration in cases where they placed sensitive and personal information on their devices.

“Whether you’re an individual, a business or a government/state agency, failing to wipe clean information properly can have serious consequences down the road," Blancco’s Henry added.

"One of the more glaring discoveries from our study is that most people attempt in some way or another to delete their data from electronic equipment. But while those deletion methods are common and seem reliable, they aren’t always effective at removing data permanently and they don’t comply with regulatory standards,” he concluded.

Source: The Blancco Technology Group and Kroll Ontrack.

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