In June, a team of researchers investigating the disposal of electronics in Ghana for PBS series Frontline discovered that computers dumped in Ghana still contained highly sensitive data from their prior owners. The researchers procured seven hard drives from the dump in Ghana and they contained credit card numbers and resumes. The highlight of the investigation was when they discovered unencrypted information from government contractor Northrop Grumman. The hard drives were was obtained by Frontline for $40.
Northrop Grumman said in a statement to IT World, that it believes the hard drive was stolen from an unidentified contractor hired to dispose of the computer, though that does not appear to explain how the hard drive ended up in a dump in Ghana with its information intact. Apparently, sources in Ghana indicated to the Frontline team that "data thieves" routinely search through disposed electronics for valuable information.
The moral of this story is that electronic media, even hard drives that have been wiped of sensitive data, may retain residual information. When disposing of them, care should be taken to ensure that information is no longer recoverable. Some suggest physically destroying hard drives containing sensitive information before disposing of them. The FTC provides a more detailed list of disposal recommendations at their OnGuradOnline website.
- Northrop Grumman
- OnGuardOnline, “Computer Disposal”
- Robert McMillan, IT World, 6/24/09 “Reporters Find Northrop Grumman Data in Ghana Market”
- Story via: Cory Doctorow, BoingBoing, 6/25/09 “Illegal e-waste dumped in Ghana includes unencrypted hard drives full of US security secrets”