Are you sure you deleted that e-mail?

One way to delete data from your hardware for good

TESS VIGELAND: All right, I've got 30 seconds before this message will self-destruct, so here goes: Think about what you've got on your computer's hard drive. Personal e-mails, financial records, maybe a few web pages you wouldn't want anyone to know about? Well, it's none of my business, but when you get rid of that computer, it's not like the movies, where the information just vanishes.

Geoff Brumfiel reports on the mission almost impossible of getting rid of the data.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL: If you're like me, you keep a lot of private stuff on your computer. And you've probably never thought too much about what happens to it all when you delete it. But before you sell that old machine, maybe you should.

DAVID MCGUIRE: Your computer and everything else is just a giant piece of copying technology, right. So everything is meant to be backed up and stored, and if you loose it, they want you to be able to find it.

David McGuire is with the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology. It seeks to preserve privacy in the electronic age.

MCGUIRE: It's not something inherently malicious about technology, it's just that often, your data persists, even when you think you've gotten rid of it.

And that means when you get rid of that old computer, someone else may be able to get your data off it.

In 2003, MIT computer scientists bought 158 hard drives from people who thought they were empty. But researchers found over 5,000 credit card numbers and sensitive records, and several gigabytes worth of personal e-mail and pornography.

In the corporate world, a cottage industry has sprung up to deal with the risks of obsolete data. It's called "data destruction."

AD: What is risk? Webster defines it as "possibility of loss or injury." The kind of risk we are talking about is "e-risk." Specifically, risk to privacy and security are at the top. Your company may also experience financial fines, fiduciary challenges, bad press, prison terms, sanctions, and of course, environmental and health challenges. Do you know what your e-risks really are?

I went to the nation's largest government technology conference where I met Charles Smith, inventor of something called the "Hard-Drive Crusher."

SMITH: This is taking about seven seconds. We're watching the . . . all the platters get mashed up, so that they're unreadable. Now we release. We have just prevented the escape of data.

Smith's machine is basically just a hydraulic ram that can be used to crush hard drives, cell phones, memory sticks, and well, anything you might want crushed. Seemed a little extreme to crush my hard drive before selling my computer. Until he put it in perspective.

SMITH: You seem like a very nice guy, and if you're totally comfortable with every Web site you've visited, every e-mail you've written or received being available to whoever might get it? Go ahead!

Every Web site? Hmmmm. Maybe it would be a good idea to pulverize my hard drive before I sell my next machine.

But not all your sensitive data is on your hard disk. Maybe you're keeping old tax records on CD? Well before you snap them in two and toss them in the trash, talk to this guy.

ROGER HUTCHISON: My name is Dr. Roger Hutchison, and I'm the inventor of the technology used by the National Security Agency to destroy classified data on CD ROM and DVD disks.

Hutchison says it's possible to read up to 85 percent of data off a shredded CD. Instead, he suggests his CD destroyer.

HUTCHISON: Nine seconds in, nine seconds out. And at the end of the process, if you take a microscope and try to image the data, it's 100 percent gone.

And these guys weren't the only ones at the show. Others were peddling self-destructing flash drives and disk demagnetizers. There's even a company that will reduce your entire computer to a pile of dust through its "patented destruction process."

All this crushing and grinding doesn't come cheap. Most companies declined to give exact prices, but Charles Smith says his hard-drive crusher costs over $11,000.

So what can the average consumer do? David McGuire has come up with one solution:

MCGUIRE: Unfortunately, the pretty inefficient way that I've gone about it so far is I just haven't thrown any computers away - I've got them in a pile in my closet.

If you're lacking closet space, then McGuire suggests taking matters into your own hands with a carefully-swung hammer.

In Washington, I'm Geoff Brumfiel for Marketplace Money.

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