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Ensuring data security with a bucket of worms and a hammer; goggles optional

Jun 18, 20154 mins
Big DataPrivacySecurity

Getting in the habit of destroying sensitive data in junk mail and on old drives and devices isn't just about proper use of approved technology. Sometimes what you need is creativity, a sense of humor, and a good fire extinguisher.

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Credit: Thinkstock

Someone recently asked me a question about data destruction, which got me thinking: What is it that works for me, and for other security-minded people, to get us in the habit of destroying sensitive data in junk mail and on old drives and devices?

There are lots of lovely technologies out there that will wipe and shred everything till it’s of no functional use, but it wasn’t until I found something more imaginative that I got into the habit of destroying my data. I was sure I was not alone in this, so I looked into the data destruction habits of other security-minded people to see what worked for them.

Don’t forget your respirator

I started my research by asking a few co-workers about interesting data destruction techniques. While there was one delightful “pie in the sky” suggestion that would fit well in an episode of Top Gear (in short: Make data go splat!), there were other suggestions that were even more dramatically destructive. For the paltry sum of a few tens of thousands of dollars, you can get a hard drive shredder that will rip your disk (or other small electronic device) into tiny, pea-gravel-sized chunks.

[ ALSO ON CSO: The in-depth guide to data destruction ]

For some purposes, even this is not “destroyed” enough, and the final particle size needs to be smaller still. In these cases, there are machines that will take media down to a “fine powder.” (It’s always fun when you can combine phrases like “20 tons of force to hydraulically destroy data” and “office-friendly machine” all in one ad!) I suppose this is more scalable and less apt to get you into trouble with housemates or spouses than using your home blender to destroy devices!

Before the last time I moved, I was reading an article about how the only truly safe way to destroy data on old electronics was to physically destroy them. As I had no small number of old devices and storage media to get rid of, I took that as motivation to get creative. 

After factory resetting all the devices, I put them in the kitchen sink and filled it with boiling water. The next morning, I put all the waterlogged items in a bag and headed out to the parking lot to do my own version of the Office Space printer scene (so therapeutic!). At my husband’s suggestion, several old CDs got the microwave treatment which delivered several more minutes of malevolent giggling.

But most of my day-to-day data destruction is much less dramatic. My first tactic was to purge sensitive papers by putting them in bags of well-soiled kitty litter or soupy kitchen waste to deter would-be information thieves. While this was thoroughly gross in a satisfying sort of way, it was not thoroughly destructive enough to put my mind at ease. Plus, I had to wait until I had enough filth in which to bury my papers.

At our new house I had access to a fireplace, so I upgraded to burning sensitive junk mail nightly. While this was thoroughly destructive, during the hot summer months I would end up with a backup of papers again. Now I have a vermicomposting bin, so I simply rip up the papers as I finish reading them and feed them to my bucket full of worms. These wonderful creatures break the papers down further, with remarkable speed. This is satisfyingly gross, thorough, timely, and not subject to seasonal fluctuation. Plus, my strawberry plants love the results!

A quick survey of my friends and colleagues provided a delightful list of things they’ve done to destroy their own data:

  • A stack of floppies on the patio table met the blades of a lawnmower after a stiff gust of wind blew them to the ground.
  • “Drill press. Because I didn’t know where to find the thermite.”
  • “Put a hard drive in a log splitter. Squish!”
  • Old hard drives were removed from their housings and taken to the shooting range where they were dispatched with high-powered rifles.
  • One crafty soul ripped out the interesting bits and made jewelry out of them.

While I can’t officially recommend many of these techniques as there is a certain level of personal risk involved, I hope this inspires more of us to think of data destruction as something other than a chore. Protecting our privacy doesn’t have to be about dour paranoia, it can be therapeutic, fun and creative. But please, do me a favor: wear safety equipment and have a fire extinguisher handy.


Lysa Myers began her tenure in malware research labs in the weeks before the Melissa virus outbreak in 1999. She has watched both the malware landscape and the security technologies used to prevent threats from growing and changing dramatically. Because keeping up with all this change can be difficult for even the most tech-savvy users, she enjoys explaining security issues in an approachable manner for companies and consumers alike. Over the years, Myers has worked both within antivirus research labs, finding and analyzing new malware, and within the third-party testing industry to evaluate the effectiveness of security products. As a security researcher for ESET, she focuses on providing practical analysis and advice of security trends and events.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Lysa Myers and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.