GUEST POST: Recycling devices is good for charities and the environment too – but what about the data still in them?

Charities donating their hardware need to ensure that they remove any data beforehand. Robert Winter, Chief Engineer of Kroll Ontrack, shares his thoughts in this guest post.

| 11th Jul 13

Charities donating their hardware need to ensure that they remove any data beforehand. Robert Winter, Chief Engineer of Kroll Ontrack shares his thoughts below.

For years charities have urged people to recycle their electronic devices for reuse by those not able to afford to purchase equipment. The public has generally been compliant with the request, willingly parting with an old computer or handset without a second thought- especially when they upgrade to something new.  Mobile phone recycling in the UK alone is expected to grow in two years by at least 19% according to analyst firm TechNavio.  Computer recycling is also on the rise.  UK charity Computer Aid already processes as least 3,000 donated PCs and laptops each month – all of which go on to be used in schools and projects all over the world. That number will grow as more users switch from using PCs and Macs to other devices such as tablets and iPads.

However, are donors taking the necessary steps to erase all the data from their devices before they give them away?  Are the charities doing it on the donor’s behalf? A simple click of the delete option will not permanently erase all the information in a phone or computer. Neither will removing a SIM card.

Charities like Computer Aid understand the risks involved in unwittingly passing on previous owners’ data.  For years they’ve relied on Ontrack Eraser software from Kroll Ontrack to ensure that every donated PC has its data permanently wiped before it is reused.  According to the charity, disk drive wiping is a vital part of the process of refurbishing a PC, because it reassures the donor organisation that none of its data is being shipped overseas.  It also reassures the recipient organisation that the PC is fully refurbished, rather than merely recycled.

Unfortunately there are plenty of other organisations that don’t bother to wipe data. Several companies that claimed to be legitimate disposal and recycling firms were recently caught out for sending computers from high street stores to Nigeria.

Investigators at the Environment Agency have also warned that many of the computers being sent abroad by firms may contain sensitive information that can potentially be used for fraud. Most tech savvy criminals are well organised and know where to find recycled computers and mobile devices and can be successful at extracting data.

Before any recycling takes place, donors should do their homework and find out which charities and recycling organisations have a policy for total data erasure. Computer Aid does it right.  A highly specialised team sorts the incoming hardware into separate categories according to their specifications.  PCs that can be refurbished are recorded and labelled with a barcode that will accompany them all the way through the supply chain, and links each PC to the Ontrack Eraser platform.  This means that there is a clear provenance for each machine, together with documented proof that all data was wiped from the system.

A data erasure solution is required for mobile phones as well.  Recycling an old device might be good for the environment and for charities, but it could fall into the wrong hands. Under the Data Protection Act recycling companies have a duty to delete data from equipment securely before passing it on to other users.  Not all of them comply with the rules – which is why it’s vital to check up on organisations before recycling devices.