Where do your devices go when they’ve outlived their usefulness? What about the ones that croaked prematurely and have turned into expensive paper-weights, door-stoppers and dust collectors? Most of us have been working with technology long enough now that even the most restrained consumer will have amassed a small pile of metal, glass and plastic that is taking up valuable space, and at worst, a ticking security and environmental time bomb. First and foremost, tossing your old equipment in the trash is unconscionable on multiple levels. The plastic alone will bury us before we know it (literally and metaphorically), but even the simplest of devices are full of chemicals and metals that are harmful to the environment. You know this – the pile of old equipment taking up space in your closet, garage and office proclaims it loud and clear. So what’s a security-conscious, environmentally-mindful individual to do?
What do I do with all this “junk?”
For your devices that don’t store data – printers, scanners, monitors, keyboards, mice, etc – make a quick assessment of their actual utility. If they are still working and just old or retired for something sexier (no judgement – we all like shiny things), consider cleaning them up and donating them to a worthy cause. But call before dropping them off – not all charities take old technology for a variety of reasons, including the fact that they get way too much of it and it requires resources they don’t have to clean it up for use or resale. Printers are a special breed of unwanted donation: most often they are being disposed of because they don’t work well and the consumables are too costly, so consider whether your donation to your favorite charity is a gift or an albatross.
For devices that store data, computers, smartphones and tablets, regardless of their final destination – reuse, recycle or destruction – you should be mindful of the data that the devices may contain. If the device is still in good condition it may be able to enjoy a second, useful life with a non-profit or local shelter, but you (or your designated IT professional) should make sure your data is completely removed and the device is wiped and returned to factory settings if possible. Giving a computer with a wiped hard drive to a non-profit might actually be saddling them with a costly and useless gift, as these organizations may not have the resources to get that device working again.
If an older devices is destined for an eWaste program that guarantees destruction or recycling (not all do), make sure this includes hard drive destruction. If they offer “certified” data destruction you should know that, as of now, there is no official destruction certification issued by any regulatory agency, but failure to properly destroy protected classes of data (like HIPAA) might actually get you into trouble with the government. If a company guarantees that they will securely destroy all data, the only thing holding them to that guarantee is their own word and a disciplined, consistent approach. If they don’t guarantee destruction, pull the hard drives out of all computers, and definitely don’t include mobile devices, as there is a chance they might be resold in the gray market in another part of the world, possibly with your data still on the device.
Fortunately, mobile devices and hard drives are a bit smaller and easier to store, and there are ways to securely destroy data on them that will make a recovery attempt unreasonable or impractical. There are also many companies out there that will guarantee physical destruction and recycling of the materials, but not for free. While it may sound like fun to work out your technology frustrations by using a hammer or power drill on a pile of old hard drives, the only way to truly be certain of destruction is to literally have those devices ground into tiny bits after all the data has been digitally and securely wiped.
Worst case, put those old drives and mobile devices in a secure drawer for the possibility of a more cost-effective destruction method in the near future. This a growing, but still hidden problem that will eventually be forced out in the harsh light of reality, but for the moment, secure data destruction and eWaste management is still in its “Wild West” stage of development with its share of snake oil salesmen and misconceptions.
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