back to article You know how that data breach happened? Three words: eBay, hard drives

Users are unwittingly selling sensitive and unencrypted data alongside their devices through the likes of eBay and Craigslist. Secure data erasure firm Blancco Technology Group (BTG) purchased 200 second-hand hard disk drives and solid state drives before conducting a forensic analysis to find out what data was recoverable. …

  1. Robert Moore

    Has it been six months already?

    Six months have passed, and we read another story about sensitive date found on ebay hard drives.

    It is like no one has ever heard of dban.

    For further enlightenment:

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Has it been six months already?


      And I still advocate chopping them in half... Oxy Acetylene being my weapon of choice.

      1. Mark 85 Silver badge

        Re: Has it been six months already?

        That works, but things that go "Bang" are more fun. Shotguns work well as do large caliber pistols. Dynamite might be a bit of overkill, though.

        1. Swarthy Silver badge

          Re: Has it been six months already?

          I favor a sand-filled dead-weight hammer. It takes a bit more effort, but the satisfaction of a job well done is worth it. Especially when the chips start flying off of the controller board.

          1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

            Re: Has it been six months already?

            Nuke'em from space, it's the only way to be sure!

            Sorry, couldn't resist.

        2. The First Dave

          Re: Has it been six months already?

          Dynamite is NEVER overkill

          1. keithpeter

            Re: Has it been six months already?

            "Dynamite is NEVER overkill"

            @The First Dave

            Is Chlorine Triflouride overkill?

      2. Montreal Sean

        Re: Has it been six months already?

        My method of choice is dban first, then two 3/8" holes drilled through the drive.

        1. Pat Att

          Re: Has it been six months already?

          Bit tricky to sell after that though.

      3. Mpeler

        Re: Has it been six months already?

        I say, melt them into a solid block. Solid state drives, that's the ticket...

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Has it been six months already?

          None of the above methods , although fun and more effective , will get you the needed AAA certificate which you can then use to show what a data sensitive and environmentally friendly company you are.

          ( AAA = governmemt mandated standard aka license to print money)

          I think their official ISO method is to feed them to dolphins or something...

    2. herman Silver badge

      Re: Has it been six months already?

      Uhmm... dban and the like don't actually work. It won't erase data in the file system journal, or in bad sectors on disk.

      1. roilled300

        Re: Has it been six months already?

        Uhmm... so, what does work?

        1. Helvehammer

          Re: Has it been six months already?


          You can start from a boot floppy or small usb stick and get into real-mode-DOS and run HDDerase.

          It doesn't work on every computer though. You would be surprised on what all it does work on - SATA drives and SSDs sometimes. When it does work it is VERY user friendly !

          More hardcore, but it ALWAYS (99.99%) works is to fire up a Clonezilla LiveCD version that works on your box and go to the command line. Use FDISK-L to identify which drive you want to kill. Then say HDPARM-Y /dev/sd(?) to put that drive to sleep. Unplug the power to the drive, wait 10 seconds and plug it back in. Then HDPARM -I to wake it up and read if it is ready.(may have to do it twice)

          Then set a password on that drive like so "HDPARM - - user-master u - - security-set-pass idrive /dev/sd(?) "

          Now for the fun "HDPARM - - security-erase(-enhanced?) idrive /dev/sd(?) "

          A one Terabyte drive takes like 3 hours ! An SSD takes like 20 SECONDS !!!

          Keep in mind HDDerase and Clonezilla HDPARM commands are both just operating the ATA SECURE ERASE function built into all drives since 2001.


          PS - If you got an antique drive that doesn't support Secure Erase at all - just write random stuff to it with Clonezilla's Command line : "DD BS=512 IF=/DEV/URANDOM OF=/DEV/SD(?)" and wait possibly HOURS for it to complete. Then use a windows 98se boot floppy to FDISK and FORMAT IT.

          1. g e

            Re: Has it been six months already?

            cat /dev/rand | /dev/sda ????

            Or thermite :oD

            1. Steve Evans

              Re: Has it been six months already?

              The idea of grinding up the drive chassis for the aluminium (aluminum), mixing it up with some rust and then sparking it off on top of the platters is strangely satisfying...

              I might have to try that... Although it does sound a little intensive on the man-hours.

              1. W4YBO

                The idea of grinding up the drive chassis for the aluminium...

                Combine a two week vacation, almost a pound of leftover copper thermite from cadwelding ground rods, and a few old hard drives in the bottom of a flowerpot. I jammed an old rack handle into the top of the mass as it was cooling, and now have an odd looking doorstop.

            2. adam 40

              That only works if /dev/sda is executable...

              sed 's/|/>/'

          2. Alan Brown Silver badge

            Re: Has it been six months already?


            Yup - and it DOES write out to the bad sectors and spare sectors too.

            Dban is unnecessary Voodoo - there is no need to do hundreds of overwrites on modern drives.

            Citation: and

            TL;DR: Peter Gutmann's original research was performed on 10 and 20MB MFM stepper motor hard drives, which haven't been made or sold for more than 20 years. Voice coil head controllers are far more accurate in their tracking and the inter-track spacing in higher capacity drives is so small that the atomic force microscopy method doesn't work. (You need to be a three letter agency to be doing this kind of shit anyway, and finding 10kB of sensitive data amongst 200GB of erased stuff isn't going to be easy)

            If the drive supports ATA secure erase: use it.

            If not: dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/sd{drive} is more than sufficient.

            NOTE: If you have a self-encrypting drive then all that needs to be done is to change the key. That's what a ATA secure erase does on these ones and is why the secure erase only takes a couple of minutes on such drives.

            ATA erase and ATA secure erase were implemented as a direct response to Peter Gutmann's security papers. It was clear that decent erasure methods were needed and this was the industry's response to the issue. The erasure provided by these methods is more than sufficient to prevent _any_ previously written data being extracted from a drive (Source: Personal discussions with Andre Hedrick when he was a member of the ATA technical committee.)

      2. Old Handle

        dban doesn't work

        Do you have any evidence for this? Not being able to overwrite bad sectors I can understand, but why would the journal be out of reach? Surely it would treat the device as a raw volume ignoring the file system entirely.

    3. This post has been deleted by its author

  2. Sampler


    "Investing in tools and methods to erase data from IT assets tends to sit low on their organisation’s list of IT security priorities,"

    Investing in tools? Because there's not a plethora of secure erase tools available? The only investment needed is giving your techy half an hour to set the bootable USB going and then to check it after.

    (half hour includes, as standard, time to grab a brew too)

    1. gollux

      Re: Investing

      Yeah, that free DBan download kills most budgets, as does just simply folding most 2.5" drives in half and then peeing on them and burying them out in the rose planter.

    2. herman Silver badge

      Re: Investing

      Yeah, like the free secure erase algorithm that is built into every disk drive controller since the end of the previous century? Activating that routine will really break everybody's IT budget.

      1. Dave Bell

        Re: Investing

        I don't claim to be any sort of expert, but I have never heard of that. I've installed new hard drives, read instructions, set jumpers, and all that stuff, but I have no recollection of any of that.

        I expect somebody to say "Everyone knows that!". Well, we don't.

        Seriously, this is a citation needed moment.

  3. Bob Dole (tm)

    10% ?

    "Out of the 200 used HDDs and SSDs, only 10 per cent had a secure data erasure method performed on them."

    I'm surprised that 10% had been properly erased. I figured that number wouldn't be any higher than 1%

    1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      Re: 10% ?

      My initial reaction was that if the figure was 10% then "FORMAT C: must have been counted as a secure data erasure method.

      On the other hand, perhaps the only people who think it is worth trying to sell old (and therefore slow, small and knackered) hard drives on eBay are bean-counters and *they* actually do have access to people with the necessary skills. Perhaps 10% is really true.

      Edit: And if bean-counters are the only people selling then (for the same reasons) perhaps data thieves (and researchers) are the only people buying them.

    2. Nigel 11

      Re: 10% ?

      Realistically, how many folks have the ability to retrieve any data from $DISK following

      # dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/$DISK bs=4M

      Yes, that is not a secure erasure technique. Yes, anyone with a few grand to spare might be able to convince a data-recovery company to retrieve some random fragments of what was there before.

      More secure, if you care: download DBAN. Not sure that is officially secure either, because it lacks any bureaucratic certification of secure-ness. But it is the officially secure algorithm.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: 10% ?

        I would like to see even TLAs recover stuff from a disk overwritten by this method - as long as it's magnetic and not shingled. Read from /dev/urandom to make doubly sure.

        Now, hybrid and SSDs I'm not so sure.

    3. 2+2=5 Silver badge

      Re: 10% ?

      >> "Out of the 200 used HDDs and SSDs, only 10 per cent had a secure data erasure method performed on them."

      > I'm surprised that 10% had been properly erased. I figured that number wouldn't be any higher than 1%

      It's worse than that. From the article "Two in five of the drives (36 per cent) showed evidence of an attempt to delete data" which means that 3 out of 5 were *sold* - not thrown away - sold with the data intact.

      1. Magani

        Re: 10% ?

        "Two in five of the drives (36 per cent) ...'

        I suspect someone wasn't paying attention to their Grade 2 teacher during the arithmetic period.

        "Four out of ten, SEE ME!"

    4. herman Silver badge

      Re: 10% ?

      Considering how many people on IT related web sites always suggest using dban, shred, dd and other utilities that don't work properly since they don't erase data between tracks or in bad sectors, I am surprised that that 10% were done right.

      1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

        Re: "don't work properly"

        Thing is, you need an order of magnitude greater skills to get data out of those areas, and probably you are looking at a tiny fraction of what was once stored on the HDD.

        Deleted via recycle bin? Piss-easy to get back.

        Formatted? Not too hard if standard structure used and/or you use a scanning tool looking for recognisable data (word doccuments, JPEG images, etc)

        Overwritten with zeros? Damn hard without low-level HDD access below the usual SATA command set (possibly even custom forensics hardware & software).

        Physically destroyed with thermite? No chance.

        Considering the effort and possible desire to get some 2nd hand value/use, simply doing a full disk wipe or using the "secure erase" option is plenty good enough.

  4. Karl Vegar

    Maybe this is a bit squewed..

    Anyone willing to sell old drives might not have the sharpest IT dept.

    I can nearly understand old drives, that had been part of a raid5 setup,, and that have been low level formated being sold alongside a server, if that is the only way to shift the old ... iron.

    Otherwise, I thought storing the old drives for a time, untill one can arrange for a physical og magnetinc solution was standard procedure.

    Personally, I'd go for thermite, but for some reason my boss won't let me. (Something about fire and / or environmental hazard in a the middle of the city...)

    1. Hey Nonny Nonny Mouse

      Magentic solution will destroy the drive as it'll wipe the all important servo data (which may or may not be desired), physical which destroys the platters is preferred and, weirdly, thermite isn't actually that effective (there are videos showng the residue being wiped off the platters) unless you're lucky/careful to place it right.

      By far the best way is shredding.

      But the IT dept trainee can't supplement his income if you make the disks unsaleable

    2. Nigel 11

      Physical destruction is best

      This will put the data beyond reach of anyone except a three-letter agency (and probably also the agencies).

      0. Make sure it's a magnetic disk not an SSD or hybrid

      1. Smash the electronics board with a hammer (probably optional, but satisfying).

      2. Drill several holes in the top of the HDA

      3. Put the disk in a tray and pour xxx-cola into one of the holes until the HDA is full, then more to cover it. (The multiple holes are to let the air / gas vent).

      4. Leave overnight to dissolve the magnetic domains off the platters. (You know what it does to a tooth, right? )

      5. Throw it away.

      For an SSD you need an incinerator. (Or a decent bonfire, and utter disregard for the anti-pollution regulations).

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Physical destruction is best

        You forgot firing it into orbit on a SpaceX rocket.

        Then blowing it up with ground-based lasers.

        1. Efros

          Re: Physical destruction is best

          Nuke it from space... It's the only way to be sure.

          Mine's the anorak...

        2. PNGuinn

          Re: Physical destruction is best

          "You forgot firing it into orbit on a SpaceX rocket."

          As long as you tape it to the bit that returns with heat resisting masking tape and wait for a long distant return ...

  5. Josh 14

    I still remember being a bit miffed when I learned that one of my old employers wouldn't allow reuse of old drives, and instead drilled holes through the drive platters before further mechanical mutilation.

    A friend worked for a Redmond IT company who actually requires mechanical shredding of all drives pulled out of equipment in certain areas.

    Either of those make content recovery a much more difficult prospect!

  6. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    Formatting has two options

    The quick one just erases the index, the full one is supposed to overwrite all sectors with 0s and check the result for bad sectors.

    Now, I know nothing about data recovery, but I do seem to recall that so-called "secure erasers" do nothing more than write random 1s and 0s over all the file or disc contents multiple times. From what I've heard, those that do 10 rewrites are more secure than those that do 1 rewrite.

    Something to do with border magnetism or other.


    Could someone point me to a web page that gives a layman's view of what the risk is ? Because if you overwrite a byte with a 0, then a 1, I fail to understand how some genius hacker can possible find out that the proper data was initially 0.

    I'm stupid like that, but willing to learn.

    1. Nigel 11

      Hacking a disk that's been 100% written to zero.

      To get data off a disk that has been written to zero you need to hack at the hardware level.

      When you write to a disk the head is not always exactly centred on the track. Sometimes it is off a bit to the left, sometimes off a bit to the right. So there may be a smear of previous contents as a weak noisy signal, if you are able to command the head to offset to various normally non-commandable positions left or right of nominal centre, and pick up the analogue signal from the head for nonstandard processing rather than feeding it into the standard disk-read signal processor code.

      A three-letter agency might even have something like a large electron microscope to image the magnetic state of every square nanometer on a platter, and something like an image-processing system to decode it.

      If you write multiple garbage patterns the chances of any off-centre data remaining goes down. I imagine each pass trashes about half of what was left by the previous one.

      There is also whatever is left on the bad blocks that were replaced during the disk's lifetime. You have to assess what is the chance of a random four kilobytes written at a random time in the past being of any interest, and what might the consequences be? I'd hope that a disk's firmware erases a bad sector before relocating it, but unless the manufacturer specifies that it does you should assume the worst.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Hacking a disk that's been 100% written to zero.

        Might have been possible with large magnetic zones of the 80's/90's. Today -- well, definitely easier to do rendition to Assad's basement and just ask nicely.

        1. Nigel 11

          Re: Hacking a disk that's been 100% written to zero.

          definitely easier to do rendition to Assad's basement and just ask nicely.

          Unless the former owner of the PC was a suicide bomber, random bits of whom are now in a bucket in the morgue.

      2. Captain Badmouth

        Re: Hacking a disk that's been 100% written to zero.

        "When you write to a disk the head is not always exactly centred on the track. Sometimes it is off a bit to the left, sometimes off a bit to the right. So there may be a smear of previous contents as a weak noisy signal, if you are able to command the head to offset to various normally non-commandable positions left or right of nominal centre, and pick up the analogue signal from the head for nonstandard processing rather than feeding it into the standard disk-read signal processor code."

        That's what Gibson Research does with their spinrite utility.

        1. Seajay#

          Re: Hacking a disk that's been 100% written to zero.

          Maybe these methods will get some of the data back, maybe they once would have done but are unlikely to any longer. Given the level of competition between manufacturers over storage density, I suspect that if there is enough spare space to hold a redundant copy of the data on the drive some clever drive maker would have released a drive with the same hardware and double the capacity and made a fortune as a result. Now it's probably the case that such a drive would be absurdly unreliable but you can be sure that drive makers will be pushing as hard as they can up against that reliability limit. That necessarily means that at the bit level your recovery will be absurdly unreliable so you'll end up with a disk image where maybe 10% of the bits are correct but you have no idea which ones. That means that you've got pretty much zero chance of recovering anything which is compressed, slim chance of recovering binary formats like word docs, maybe a chance of recovering fragments of plain text files.

      3. Pascal Monett Silver badge

        @Nigel 11

        "if you are able to command the head to offset to various normally non-commandable positions left or right of nominal centre, and pick up the analogue signal from the head for nonstandard processing rather than feeding it into the standard disk-read signal processor code"

        So you mean to say that I would have to have a disk reading apparatus specifically made for budging a disk head a (gnat's) hair's width further than it should on either side of the normal track, and have bespoke software ready to read and interpret weak signals that normal software would treat as noise. Failing that, I'd need to reprogram the firmware (or replace the command chip with something physically compatible that contains the proper code to do the job). Okay, to me that sounds like much more of a bother than what it can be worth.

        On the other hand, if you know that the disk contains data that could be worth tens of thousands of dollars on the market, then yes, somebody will obviously have done that (not counting the various spy agencies for which access to such material seems to be a basic requirement).

        All in all, not something your basic mom & pop operation really needs to worry about, right ?

        1. Captain Badmouth

          Re: @Pascall Monett

          "So you mean to say that I would have to have a disk reading apparatus specifically made for budging a disk head...?"

          Read Steve Gibson's explanation of his spinrite :

      4. Alister Silver badge

        Re: Hacking a disk that's been 100% written to zero.

        I don't know about multiple writes to zero, but I learned a salutary lesson some years ago when a friend of mine managed to do a clean install of windows 7 beta over his XP boot drive by mistake (he meant to install it on a separate drive).

        So the existing partitions had been removed, and then new partitions created, and the new O/S written to the drive.

        Despite that, with a piece of software called GetDataBack_NT which cost about $50, we were able to recover all of his previous partitions and data from that drive, and clone it to another drive, and boot it.

        Ever since then, I've been very careful not to assume that overwritten data can't be recovered.

    2. herman Silver badge

      Re: Formatting has two options

      You load a special driver into the drive controller that shifts the servo off track by 25%, then read the data left over between the tracks.

      If you really want to erase a disk do this:

      # hdparm --security-set-pass user /dev/sdX

      # hdparm --security-erase user /dev/sdX

      That will overwrite the data over the whole disk surface, on the tracks and in between the tracks.

    3. Tony-A

      Re: Formatting has two options

      A simple overwrite with zeroes will defeat all but very high-$ attempts to recover information.

      I assume the NSA is not about to divulge how much they can recover from such, regardless of the answer.

      If the information on the disk would/might be that valuable, then physical destruction is obviously the correct solution.

      Strings on the raw disk will show content, enough to make the raw disk a real security risk.

      1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

        Re: Formatting has two options

        Lets face it, if you worry about a TLA recovering data you should have been using an encrypted file system with the HDD when in use, so not only do they have to try and undo the overwrite, but they also have to know your encryption key as well.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I bought a system on e-bay a number of years ago. Looks like it had been used by a major telecommunictions company, probably in their service department, since the it arrived with the hard disk loaded up with customer work orders, including name, address, credit card number, social security number, and some other interesting tidbits of information. Being the ethical hacker than I am, I promptly deleted all of that information (Darn it. Don't you just hate when ethics get in the way of turning a fast buck?).

  8. Vince

    Ah yes... the old second hand hard disc thing.

    I guess that's why in our office we batch them up and then use our hefty crusher to totally destroy the drives. Not only does that avoid the data breach, it relieves the stress of one of our team. A win win.

    1. BillG Silver badge

      I keep my old drives for just this reason. It's not worth doing a military wipe just to sell it for $30 on eBay.

      BTW I do buy used drives off eBay for new laptop builds and enjoy doing a data recovery. Usually I just find porn, but I have found family photos, personal information, photos of driver's licenses. I also found one drive that I realized was from a lawyer as there were contracts, letters, memos, and plenty of other confidential information.

  9. Servman

    Secure Data Destruction

    I don't seem to have data breach problems....

    1. Fungus Bob Silver badge

      Re: Secure Data Destruction

      Considering the erasure method, Shirley you mean "data breech"...

      Also, whoulda thunk Canadians would be gun crazy like us Mericans?

  10. getHandle

    On the flip side

    If you want a good price for your second hand, thoroughly wiped hard disk, just imply it was used for sensitive data in a government department!

    1. Nigel 11

      Re: On the flip side

      Good idea.

      And on a wet Sunday afternoon, after disk erasure completes, reformat it, dump some images of random Microsoft DVDs onto it, then fake up a DB table of names and addresses from a public directory and fields that look like credit card numbers, issue/expiry dates and CVVs. Then recursively delete all the files.

      Bastard might get himself arrested. (an innocent buyer will just reformat or look at an empty disk and start writing his stuff).

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    June '16

    All-in-all, depressing as hell. So instead of bewailing the same ol' same ol', I'm going to go for the ROFLMAO option.

    Sometimes you just have to.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    In the old days several tracks on a mainframe disk were reserved as replacements. When a track had a permanent error that meant it couldn't be used - then one of the reserves was allocated in its place. The O/S still thought it was addressing the original track - but the controller picked up enough data to know where to seek for the replacement.

    IIRC hard drives still have a similar strategy that is not visible to the O/S. Do disk erasing programs actually gain access to the hidden tracks in order to erase them? Ditto the spare blocks on SSDs?

    1. captain_solo

      not usually since this is controlled by the drive firmware and the OS which you are using to wipe the drive no longer has access to those blocks/tracks. Not sure about SSD, probably similar approach since the marking of off limits areas is done at the hw/fw/controller level.

      Theoretically the risk is very low, similar to what happens when a drive fails in a way that it is offline so you cannot wipe it before it is removed from a system. There is a gap there for sure since the platters still contain data, but hardware vendors tend to charge you a lot if you want a secure destruction contract where you get to keep failed drives and not return them in exchange for the replacement their tech brought out. I know the companies I have worked for securely erase those devices in their reman processing if they will be put back into the spares pool while maintaining the defect list so those faulty blocks are not allocated again and they always had policies around secure destruction of drives that were not being re-used.

      For any Unix/Linux systems, I have used DBan on both windows and Linux machines, or variations on Format - in Solaris for example the format/analyze/purge method is compliant with a DOD spec for data destruction since it writes multiple times over every block in different patterns and verifies that every block has been written - I think it defaults to 5 passes? Still though, that is only every block that the OS can access which might not be 100% of them, although it will be close.

      Degaussing works, as does shredding, but if you have to return a drive in a condition that it can then be reconditioned and used for future service calls, those methods tend to cause a problem.

      1. foxyshadis

        Degaussing hard drives has never been a workable data erasure method, despite it working so well with tape. Even back kin the 90's, you needed more magnetic power than any commercial electromagnet can provide, unless you have access to a weather radar unit, and they've only become better since.

  13. Dadmin

    Wrong, wrong, double-wrong

    The safest way to deal with the old drive is to stow it, and keep it as a backup.

    Why do people sell drives in the first place? Did you outgrow it, or it makes weird noises, or the LED is too bright and blue? They are typically small and easy to set aside. Are they worth a lot when reselling? Are these idiots strapped for cash? It all sounds like the normal activities of the average computer consumer or with your lovely bree-exert; not very well thought out. Keeping the drive protects the data contained on it. You can bring it to work, or leave it at a relative's house for "offsite storage" like the big-admins do. I just fail to see why getting US$40 back for a drive you spent US$100 on while at the same time broadcasting your personal details on it to ebay+The_Dog is anything but a fucking stupid-ass idea. Right up there with you pinheads and your various destruction methods. Just print your "precious data" onto flash paper and light it up when you're done with it. HA! Dopes.

    I will never ever have this problem. People that do make me wonder why they are keeping any data in the first place; they have no clue how to manage it, or how not to mismanage it when throwing out old gear thinking no one will look at it.

    1. StudeJeff

      Re: Wrong, wrong, double-wrong

      Who needs to keep all those drives? They are worth money if properly taken care of. The company I work for deals with end of lease equipment and one of our contractual requirements is we scrub every drive that comes through here. The drives are then reused in refurbished machines or sold as parts.

      We use software from either IBM or White Canyon to scrub the drives, and while the NSA might be able to get some data off them no one else could.

    2. Baldy50

      Re: Wrong, wrong, double-wrong

      Me too for the shit my family stores (photos etc...) they haven’t bothered to backup so I do it to a spare drive and just plonk it some ware safe ish till they need something they've lost.

      BTW if running a Linux based system is an unmounted drive at risk from cross platform or Linux targeted malware a problem?

      Have a lovely collection of HD platters on the wall and serve as a mirror so helps me check how much grey I'm exposing before I leave the house.

    3. Dave Bell

      Re: Wrong, wrong, double-wrong

      I've been setting up, for learning purposes, an ancient server I bought on eBay. Cheap old drives, that have had a good reformat/scrub done, and are still in compatible drive caddies, are a good deal. But, I'll be honest, I could have bought some current-model new drives.

      With the way bad sectors are silently switched-out, some of the seller's claims are a bit ridiculous.

      And the outfit that made this report: what are they selling? Sure, some people are pretty careless, but this is still the sealed-envelope problem. Governments have been tracelessly opening sealed envelopes since the 18th century at least. It wasn't all that cheap or easy. Neither is reading data from a disk drive that you have taken the trouble to over-write. So much of what we hear is about the ways in which governments can use the internet to do this on the cheap.

      I don't know what data you have, but how paranoid do you have to be? The people who do this sort of expensive data recovery are like the people who could open a sealed envelope and reseal it: few and far between. What makes you think you are important enough to be worth the effort?

    4. Seajay#

      Re: Wrong, wrong, double-wrong

      Yes, the safest way to deal with an old drive is to destroy it or keep it. Just like the safest way to deal with people who might know incriminating secrets about you is to kill them or keep them in your basement.

      Security is never the only consideration, $40 is a worthwhile amount of money. If you've a thousand old computers as many businesses do, $40,000 is not an amount of money which you can justify just throwing away because you can't be bothered to think about how to erase them.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I have purchased a number of Dell 790 optiplexes on Ebay in the past.

    one from a London law firm - still had letters and legal documents referring to cases on the disk

    one from a GP surgery (Blackpool) - still with patient data and letters to consultants about patients on it.

    Im no expert i just ran recuva on the disks as had used it to recover a "dead" disk in the past.

    have purchased 4 disks from ebay today to used for windows 10 "sacrificial" disks to get the "free" upgrade before the end of July. they claim to be wiped but will be "checked" before running Dban and using.

  15. harpingon

    I use a bench vice and a drill.

    I figure that a magnetic HDD with its PCB destroyed containing all the adaptives, and the platters with several 10mm holes in them and all the swarf inside is probably good enough.

    If not, good luck to them.

    I'd never sell an old hard drive.

    Mind you, I've had to /buy/ old hard drives with SCA SCSI ports or old SE SCSI disks to get some life into an old Unix server or two before deciding that the personal power station I need to run these ridiculously power inefficient servers was too much, then they get drilled and recyled into the metals recovery.

  16. storner

    Encrypt it

    Easiest solution is to just encrypt whatever data you put on the disk. dm-crypt/LUKS on Linux boxes, and I'm sure MS has something similar (the name escapes my mind).

    It also works if the hard disk is stolen or goes AWOL in the back of taxi.

    Sure, it nips a couple of cpu cycles from your system, but most boxes have plenty of idle cycles to spare while waiting for the spinning rust to settle.

  17. confused one

    kill it with fire

    I always remove the PCBA, crush that with a dead-blow hammer or drop it into a shredder to destroy all the embedded flash. For magnetic media, I take a screw gun to the drive and remove the platters, which then spend quality time under a propane torch or in a brazing furnace. Usually long enough that the plating blisters off and the aluminum platters melt. If I cannot access a torch, I'll grind the platters down in the machine shop, destroying the plating. After it cools, all the little bits and pieces can then go in the garbage / recycle bin.

    A previous employer of mine had a history of buying used machines by the pallet load from a refurbisher; and, after a little forensics I found corporate data belonging to the prior owner(s). After that experience, I'll never let a drive out of my hands without doing the above.

  18. Adam Foxton

    Whatever happened to

    just hitting the drive repeatedly with a hammer until the casing is buckled and PCB smashed? It's quick, effective, and great stress relief!

  19. Ian Emery Silver badge

    You are all wrong

    You take the platters out and give them to SWMBO to use as bird scarers in her garden, or in certain parts of the country - as ear rings.

  20. Seajay#

    No attempt to erase 3/5 drives

    If the user hadn't even dragged the files to the recycle bin, no amount of secure erase technology would help them, including the "fire them in to the sun, it's the only way to be sure" stuff which inevitably gets suggested on the comments to these articles.

    Now that might be because the sellers were clueless or it might be because the data was worthless. Or it might be that in a parallel experiment an anti-virus company is deliberately loading up these drives with documents that contain phone-home macros ready to publish an advertorial saying "78.3% of people will open documents found on drives bought through ebay"

  21. Stuart Castle

    Where I work, often HDDs are used until they fail, but if not, Server HDDs (or those that have been used for sensitive data) are shredded. It's difficult to get data off a pile of metal shards. HDDs that haven't been used for sensitive data are generally thrown in the spare parts bin, and used to repair other machines.

  22. corestore

    It's astonishing what shows up on eBay. A few years ago I bought an SGI Onyx system. The previous owner had bought it at some auction but never got it powered up.

    I got it powered and attempted to crack root by booting single-user - only to find it was protected by a BIOS password to prevent that. I devised a hardware crack to bypass the BIOS password; got it booted single user; wiped the root password - and discovered it was an ex-NASA system with all their 'interesting' data still intact - lots of user accounts... Oracle databases... fascinating stuff. But very very naughty by NASA...

  23. Joe Harrison Silver badge

    What about the dump

    I've never been in the position of needing to dispose of computers which were too old for the business but still new enough to sell used. More than once however I've been faced with a roomful of old PCs which need to be thrown away in a sensible manner and it's extremely tempting to just put them in a van and take them to the dump.

    Destroying the data is tedious and time-consuming - even just bashing the hard disk with a hammer requires unassembling the case and taking the disk out. Software kill is just as bad as you have to plug it into keyboard and monitor, power it up, fiddle with the BIOS to get it to boot DBAN and so on. Don't even get me started on thermite laser chainsaws from orbit.

    There's no excuse for failing to secure sensitive personal data. But in practice some guy's boss is nagging him "why haven't you cleared out that old crap yet like I told you" and he's going to take the easy option, especially if it "only" means exposing a bunch of old emails nobody cares about.

  24. Freedom45

    old school attitudes to data erasure

    Kroll Ontrack are world leaders in Data Recovery - I can tell you that they have recovered data from some severely battered and bruised drives.

    They have even recovered data from drives which have been on board an exploding space shuttle.

    Is manually drilling or hammering thousands of drives really a cost effective method for destruction? I personally use a accredited software and a deguasser but i deal with thousands of drives a year. If the client requires it i use a 3rd party to shred them.

    These are the only real credible and accredited secure means to destroy data.

    In addition you can never guarantee erasure from non certified erasure software. I would never recommend my customers use free non supported, non certificated data erasure software.

    1. AndyS

      Re: old school attitudes to data erasure

      > Is manually drilling or hammering thousands of drives really a cost effective method for destruction?

      No, but then driving millions of miles a year isn't really cost effective either. However if you need to travel about 20 miles a day, it makes perfect sense.

      For most normal people, handling a few hard-drives now and again, a hammer, drill or other mechanical solution is probably perfectly fine - 5 minutes, job done. Obviously if you run a business destroying drives, you need something more... efficient.

  25. dajames Silver badge

    Pitch and Yawn

    I run a program that generates random articles about DevOps and writes them to every sector of the disk. It's not 100% secure but nobody will be able to stay awake long enough to discover any real data left behind.

  26. Tikimon Silver badge

    Careful, now!

    My esteemed colleague was drilling a hard drive one day and it threw a metal sliver into his eye. Don't let this happen to you. Now he wears safety glasses when trashing drives. Me, I disassemble them and scavenge the magnets for various purposes.

    When we don't want to destroy the drive (donating a PC with a working HD seems only polite) we use DBAN. We use whole-disk encryption, so two layers of trouble to recover our data.

  27. AndrewDu

    I took a laptop hard drive to pieces once - after "secure-deleting" it. The idea was to twist and buckle the platter so that it wouldn't be readable any more. That's when I discovered they are made of glass these days...

    Oh well nobody can read anything off it now, that's for sure...

  28. ollief

    For fear of doing it wrong, people don’t wipe their data at all.

    The problem with data destruction is scaremongering.

    People are confused and scared when they hear about FBI, NSA, spying electron microscopes, hidden sectors that can’t be wiped, wiping tools that are not certified, having to wipe multiple times. For fear of doing it wrong, people don’t wipe their data at all.

    There are a few small businesses in the world that specialise in data recovery. They don’t use electron microscopes because you get no valuable data out of them. They don’t claim to be able to recover overwritten data, because they can’t. They can only fix damaged file systems and fix failing hard drives by swapping components.

    My advice is to overwrite your hard drive once with any overwriting tool you want. DBAN is nice and simple, but there are plenty of other ones that will do the job.

  29. adam 40
    Paris Hilton

    Sales forecasts????

    I've never seen a sales forecast that turned out to be accurate, they are usually wildly optimistic.

    So what's the big deal with leaving them on your hard drive?

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