ROAD WARRIOR: Disposing of Old Technology

Vol. 29 No. 4


Jeffrey Allen ( is the principal in the law firm of Graves & Allen in Oakland, California, Editor-in-Chief of GPSolo magazine and GPSolo eReport, and a member of the Board of Editors of the ABA Journal and Experience magazine.

Those of us deep into the use of technology love getting new equipment. For those of you not so entrenched in updating your technology, the process may prove a bit less rewarding. Those of you who suffer from a touch of technophobia may even find it somewhat traumatic. Wherever we fall in the spectrum of technology users, we all share a common problem: what to do with the old technology when we upgrade to new equipment?

Disposing of old technology involves two very different sets of issues. First, as lawyers we generally possess (and store in our hardware devices) confidential client information. We have the duty to protect that information inviolate. As a related concern, we generally store our personal information on the same devices and want to maintain that information free from discovery by third parties who may abuse it.

The second set of issues relates to the environment and the disposition of hardware containing potentially damaging chemical components.

The problem of dealing with older technology has gotten worse in recent years as we have more and more personal and confidential information stored in computers, tablets, and smartphones, to say nothing of portable external hard disks, USB drives, and other forms of memory media. Additionally, our technology has come to use more and more components that can have a damaging impact on the environment.


Security Concerns

In the old days we had it easier. We stored information on paper, not on our hardware. We could dispose of the hardware without worrying about confidential data. Even when we started using computers, we stored data on magnetic media called “floppy disks” that we could easily destroy with a scissors and that would lose data in the presence of a strong magnetic field.

Today, many users believe that placing a data file in the trash bin and selecting “delete” permanently terminates its existence. Unfortunately, that does not occur, any more than tossing a piece of paper into the wastebasket permanently destroys it. It takes much more significant effort to destroy the data on the paper and even more to destroy the data in the electronic file.

With respect to the data on paper, we have developed technology known as the crosscut shredder that makes it virtually impossible to restore the data. The old standby of burning it works well, too. For those of you who like to double down on security, you can shred it and then burn the shredded remains. Try to recover the data from that.

With respect to the data stored on hard drives in desktops or laptops, or on flash memory used in these devices or in tablets, smartphones, cameras, recorders, and other devices, things are a good deal more complex. As technology has grown more sophisticated, manufacturers have developed hardier and more resilient means of storing and retaining data. We now can recover data erased from virtually any electronic system. This newfound ability can be beneficial by letting us recover accidentally erased information, but it also allows third parties who come into possession of the media to recover information we intentionally erased.

The process of “erasing” data from a drive most frequently involves destruction of the directory entry that enables the device to locate and identify the data. The data itself remains on the drive. To actually get rid of the data on magnetic media, we need to expose it to a very powerful magnetic field or, alternatively, write over the data entry.

Writing over the data is not as simple as it might at first appear. Computers store data wherever they find open space on the hard disk. Accordingly, a single file may take up several information slots, particularly on a crowded hard disk.

The destruction of the data may not prove critical until you plan to dispose of the hard drive, after which a third party could potentially acquire the drive and obtain access to the data.

So how do you destroy all the data on your drive? The most common means of doing that involves writing a “0” to every location on the drive. For that reason, some people refer to the process as “zeroing out a hard drive.” Simply writing over the entry once or even twice won’t guarantee that the data cannot be recovered. The exact number of times it takes remains up for debate, but each time you go through the process with a particular drive, you make it harder for someone to recover the over-written data.

Manually writing a “0” to every space on a hard drive would take an incredible amount of time. Software tools can automate the task, but even these aren’t quick, so don’t count on doing it while you have a cup of coffee. Plan to start the process and then come back the next day.

Different programs for accomplishing this task work with specific types of media; accordingly, you need to carefully select your software. One of the best programs for zeroing out a hard drive is Darik’s Boot and Nuke, open-source software that comes to you free of charge. An examination of all the software options would exceed the scope of this column, but you can find an excellent overview addressing a number of software options on Gizmodo’s website.

The current iteration of the Mac OS X operating system (“Lion” 10.7+) makes things a bit easier and also allows you to truly erase files and folders without wiping the entire hard disk. When you trash a file, you have the option of doing a “secure erase” that overwrites the file, making it theoretically unrecoverable. This is not the default, and you must make the election to securely erase.

Zeroing out a drive (or a file) with multiple overwrites may work sufficiently for most purposes. The simple fact remains, however, that we have no way of knowing whether the number of overwrites that proves adequate today will remain adequate in the future. If you find yourself concerned, you can remove the drive and physically destroy it. Techniques commonly used include drilling numerous holes in the drive and/or smashing it with a hammer. Although perhaps a bit more dangerous, a prolonged soak in hydrochloric acid should also work quite satisfactorily. I have also heard of people using extreme heat to melt the hard drive. Owing to the dangers associated with such techniques, I am not comfortable recommending them to you.

Fortunately, there are vendors that will physically shred your hard drives and other media for you. If, like me, you find it troublesome to ship your media off to a destruction facility, try locating a local service to which you can deliver the media yourself and which will allow you to watch as the media is destroyed in your presence. This option offers the best security currently available for the destruction of data. If you plan to physically destroy the drive yourself or have it destroyed in your presence, you probably do not need to zero out the drive first. If you plan to ship the drive to a destruction facility, I encourage you to zero out the drive first as a precaution against it getting lost in the shipping process.


Environmental Concerns

If you have fairly recent equipment, you may find a charity or a school willing to accept it as a donation. This option has the advantage of leaving to someone else the disposal of the hardware in an environmentally acceptable way, and it also gives the equipment a new life. If you plan to donate the equipment, at least zero out the memory first. If you want to exercise more caution, remove the media and destroy it, then donate the equipment without the media. Alternatively, you might replace the media with an inexpensive drive and make that as an additional donation. Memory media has come down dramatically in price, so the cost of doing this should not prove significant.

If your hardware has aged sufficiently that you cannot find a donor willing to accept it, then please avoid the temptation of simply dumping the equipment into a trash receptacle. Electronics generally contain materials that can damage the environment if not properly handled. Our increasing dependence on technology has generated an incredible amount of electronics waste. In 2008 we generated 4.6 billion pounds of electronics waste in the United States, but only about 900 million pounds of it went through recycling. Rather than dumping your hardware, please contact an electronics recycler and let them handle the disposition of your out-of-date equipment. Many vendors will dispose of the equipment at little or no cost to you, and some will even pick it up from wherever you have it.


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