Disposing of Your Device: Don’t Throw the Data Out With the Old PC

Many of us have an older model smartphone tucked in the back of a nightstand drawer, an old laptop from a previous employer who never requested it back or a personal laptop no longer in use in the home office. Eventually, we want to dispose of these devices — after we download important documents and photos to our hard drive or up to our cloud, of course.

We often see a lot of discussion around securing data while in transit or at rest, but what about when disposing of your device? Like many basic security hygiene practices, users don’t always follow best practices for proper device disposal.

Gartner estimated that worldwide shipment of devices, including PCs, ultra-mobiles (midsize, lightweight computing devices) and mobile phones, will reach 2.5 billion units by 2018. Eventually, all these devices will need to be properly discarded.

That begs the question: What should individuals and enterprises do before tossing a device to make sure the data on it remains protected or thoroughly wiped?

Back Up Your Data Before Disposing of Your Device

While we don’t want anyone else to be able access our data once we’re done with a device, we want to retain anything of importance, such as wedding or family photos. Enterprises would be more concerned about backing up confidential business documents, customer records and employees’ personally identifiable information (PII).

Individuals can use an external hard drive to back up their data. Drives vary from one to the other in terms of capacity, speed and data protection mechanisms. Select a drive based on your data needs.

Another option is to back up to the cloud. There are a number of cloud backup services available, and consumers should assess their data needs when choosing a cloud provider and storage plan. For example, there are public, private or hybrid cloud delivery models, each of which provides a unique environment for data storage.

Businesses have a lot more data to back up. To comply with their needs, they are increasingly turning to cloud providers for secure, scalable data backup. Enterprises should look for a backup solution that is comprehensive and offers additional, traditional backup services, including tape- and/or disk-based backup, off-site tape vaulting and second-site disk replication. Businesses also need to worry about meeting regulatory or corporate compliance challenges while simultaneously protecting critical data end to end.

Destroy Data, Don’t Just Delete It

Many users believe that placing electronic files in the computer’s trash bin renders them irretrievable. This is not so. Some deletion products claim to erase data permanently when, in fact, the data is still accessible after the program is run. Check the manufacturer’s manual for full details on how to wipe your device.

The same advice applies to enterprises, but they need to apply it to a much larger scale. Companies must ensure that data destruction processes complies with their security and environmental policies. Therefore, a customizable IT asset recovery solution is recommended to address any data destruction needs.

An organization might find that overwriting data on their devices is sufficient for 80 percent of their assets, but the remaining 20 percent requires a degausser, which is a device used to destroy data on magnetic storage tapes, hard drives, disks or smartphones. Or perhaps an organization would need to physically destroy a device through shredding.

Our Ecological Responsibility

Once you have properly removed the data from your device, it’s time to find a way to responsibly dispose of it that doesn’t add to the growing global accumulation of electronic waste — especially as the life spans of our devices grows shorter and shorter. Just think about the yearly frenzy to get the latest and greatest smartphone model.

Not only is it environmentally responsible to properly discard electronic waste, but businesses, and in some cases individuals, may face fines for incorrect disposal. There are a few different ways to get rid of outmoded devices:

  • Recycle. In the U.S., there are currently two certifications endorsed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for electronic recyclers. Consumers are encouraged to choose certified electronics recyclers. Europe created the European Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive to encourage the collection, treatment, recycling and recovery of electrical and electronic equipment waste. Many countries have enacted laws concerning electronic waste as well. Consumers and businesses are encouraged to seek out the recycling services that comply with their local laws and regulations.
  • Donate. Organizers of the 2020 Olympic Games are reportedly requesting that citizens donate electronics to manufacture gold, silver and bronze medals. Not in Japan? No problem. There are organizations globally that accept various electronic donations. In the U.S., devices can be donated through local vendors listed on the EPA’s website.
  • Participate in a buy-back program. Check to see if your vendor offers a buy-back program. Many will offer fair market value for marketable IT and mobile devices, sometime even regardless of brand.

Remove Your Data or Someone Will Do It for You

We love our electronic gadgets, but they don’t love us back. If your device falls into the wrong hands without the data having been properly removed, you could face a potentially malevolent attempt to access the data.

Selling your previous smartphone to a happy buyer? Make sure all your data is properly wiped from the device, format it if need be and deauthorize the device from your list of trusted devices. Otherwise, someone will find a way back in. Some cybercriminals are looking for old devices because they could be treasure troves of data belonging to their previous owner. That data can be used to identify the email addresses, personal accounts, private photos and much more.

Last but not least, properly disposing of your device through recycling, donation or a buy-back program is not only socially responsible, but it can also prevent you from having to pay environmental fees.

Learn More About Best Practices for Disposing of Your Device

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Michelle Alvarez

Threat Researcher and Editor, IBM Managed Security Services

Michelle Alvarez is a Threat Researcher and Editor for IBM's Managed Security Services; she brings more than 10 years of industry experience to her role. In this role she focuses communications efforts around threat research and mitigation. Michelle joined IBM through the Internet Security Services (ISS) acquisition, where she served as an Analyst on the X-Force Vulnerability Database Team.