Data Destruction: What It Is & How It Protects Data

Data destruction is a process that fully and irreversibly deletes data from digital storage devices, including computer hard drives, USB flash drives, CDs, mobile devices, and more. The primary goal of data destruction is to ensure that previously stored data is irrecoverable, reducing cybersecurity risks and improving digital safety. Where deletion alone often still leaves recoverable data, data destruction goes further, irrevocably eliminating the data.

Why Data Destruction Is Critical for Businesses

Over time, companies collect mountains of sensitive data, ranging from customer and employee login credentials to order information and financial reports. Once the data is gathered, many businesses hold onto it indefinitely. The issue is that maintaining that data isn’t just financially costly; it significantly increases risk.

Safely and thoroughly destroying data allows you to safeguard information that the company no longer needs. Any stored data is potentially vulnerable to a cyberattack. By destroying it at the end of its lifecycle, you ensure that older but sensitive data isn’t acquired by cybercriminals during a breach.

Additionally, data destruction reduces risks associated with data storage device disposal or reselling. Without destroying the data, any person who acquires the storage device once it’s thrown out or sold could potentially access the stored information. By using the right data destruction techniques, that’s no longer a concern.

Finally, data destruction is a cost-saving strategy. Storing information takes up valuable space on storage devices. As a result, companies may need to secure more data storage capacity – either through physical devices on-site or more room through cloud services – to handle new data they’re acquiring. By destroying data that’s reached the end of its lifecycle, data storage devices or space through third parties is reusable, reducing the need for additional capacity.

How Data Destruction Works

Data destruction works by permanently rendering information currently stored on data storage devices inaccessible to all parties, including those previously authorized to access it and unauthorized individuals, such as cybercriminals. How data destruction works varies based on the method used. Some overwrite, scramble, or thoroughly erase the data. Others make the device – including everything from its casing to the data storage mechanism – physically unusable.

Regardless of the method, the end result is similar. Any previously stored data becomes unreadable or inaccessible, leading to improved security.

Data Destruction Best Practices

Review Compliance Requirements

Before slating any data for destruction, companies need to review compliance requirements that apply to their industry. Many sectors are required to maintain specific types of data for minimum periods. Failing to do so often comes with penalties, ranging from fines to criminal charges or civil legal actions.

Additionally, regulatory requirements can outline which data destruction methods are allowed. In some cases, they might include additional steps companies must take, such as video evidence of proper destruction. As a result, businesses need to review applicable data destruction rules in advance, ensuring they’ll successfully comply with the regulations.

Test the Data Destruction Process

Once you choose data destruction methods, test them to identify potential vulnerabilities. That lets you identify areas that need shoring up, which is crucial if you’re implementing a data destruction strategy for the first time.

Have a Formal Data Destruction Policy

Data destruction policies ensure the entire company acts in accordance with various regulations and uses approached processes for data destruction. Provide guidelines for different data types and each kind of storage device used. Additionally, assign responsibility for the various steps and establish a chain of custody to ensure correct handling.

Use a Multi-Step Approach for Devices Scheduled for Disposal

In many cases, it’s best to use multiple data destruction processes to ensure the information is entirely inaccessible. Often, combining a data-oriented approach with a physical destruction method is best for any devices slated for disposal.

For items you intend to resell, using multiple software-based options is potentially wise. However, whether that’s necessary depends on the methods you use. Similarly, if reusing the device internally is the goal, some strategies work well after a single pass, though others may require multiple passes to work well.

Maintain Data Destruction Records

Accurate data destruction records allow companies to track the associated activities. Plus, it supports ongoing reporting requirements relating to regulatory compliance, which is vital in many industries or when specific data types are involved.

Precisely what the records need to contain may vary depending on regulatory requirements. As a result, companies need to identify a process that aligns with legal mandates based on their sector and the information subject to destruction.

Data Destruction Methods and Strategies

Wiping

While erasing a file doesn’t mean the data isn’t still stored on the device, wiping makes the information completely inaccessible. Usually, the data storage device is connected to a wiping device, or wiping software is used to handle the process. Wiping does leave essential device features intact, so the storage capacity is reusable.

In many cases, wiping is a potentially time-consuming process, though it’s not particularly cumbersome. Once the device is connected to the wiping device or the wiping software is initiated, all you have to do is wait for the process to complete. How long that takes varies depending on the device type and method used, ranging from just a few minutes to several hours.

Overwriting

Overwriting is another approach that goes far beyond traditional file deletion. Overwriting software replaces existing data with unreadable or meaningless characters. In some cases, a single pass is sufficient to eliminate the original data. However, bit shadows can remain that leave part of the original data identifiable.

Fortunately, you can repeatedly overwrite for additional security, a step that’s recommended if the information is incredibly sensitive in nature. Just keep in mind that the overwriting process is potentially lengthy, but reusing the device after it’s complete is an option.

It’s also essential to note that overwriting isn’t an option if a data storage device is damaged or corrupted. Damage and corruption can make all or some of the original data inaccessible to the overwriting program, making the process ineffective.

Degaussing

Degaussing is a process for wholly and permanently destroying data stored on traditional hard disk drives (HDDs), diskettes, and data storage tapes. Those device types are magnetic-based storage solutions. By using a degausser with a strong enough magnetic field, any stored data is essentially erased.

When choosing a degausser, you need to select one designed for your specific data storage device. That ensures the magnetic field strength is suitable for the job. If it’s too weak, the data isn’t erased fully, which can leave you vulnerable.

It’s critical to note that degaussing typically renders the device unusable. As a result, it’s only recommended for storage resources that you intend to dispose of, not ones you’d like to reuse.

Additionally, degaussing won’t work on devices that don’t rely on magnetic storage. That includes any device that uses a solid state drive (SSD), including SSD hard drives found in modern computers, smartphones, tablets, and USB drives. Similarly, optical storage devices – including CDs and DVDs – aren’t affected by degaussers.

Shredding

Device shredders aren’t unlike paper shredders, as they physically destroy the devices to make stored data inaccessible. These machines are designed to rip through hard drives, disks, cassettes, and similar storage options.

As with degaussing, this option isn’t usable if your company intends to reuse the storage device. However, if permanent disposal is a goal, it’s a simple option to render devices unusable.

In most cases, it’s best to couple shredding with other data destruction methods, such as degaussing, wiping, or overwriting. By combining it with other processes, your approach is more thorough, reducing risk as much as possible.

Drilling

Like shredding, drilling is usually a supplementary data destruction approach. It’s a viable option for any device type where putting holes in the storage components renders the device unusable. Classically, it’s used with HDDs. You simply use a power drill to put holes through the hard drive, including the platter within the device. Alternatively, you can drive nails through the platter, as the end result is similar.

Melting

Another physical method for destroying data storage devices is melting. As with drilling and shredding, melting is typically done after using another non-physical data destruction method. There are two potential approaches involved: acid and heat.

The acid process relies on potent acids, which are dangerous to work with and require ample precautions. You can place an HDD in acid to damage the housing and plate, making the device functionally unusable.

For the heat-based approach – also referred to as incineration – the data storage device is heated to extreme temperatures. Due to the heat required, the process is dangerous, but it’s also quite effective.

About the Author

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Catherine Reed

Catherine Reed is a writer and researcher with experience writing about a wide variety of topics including personal finance, technology, and staffing.

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