E-recycling: Keeping the College free from identity theft

July 12, 2011

By Guest Blogger and COS Summer Research Student Jamison Shabanowitz ’12


Here at the College, we are blessed to have such a great recycling program.  Slowly but surely we are finding ways to recycle more and more things, removing harmful materials from the waste stream and instead giving them to responsible vendors who properly dispose of materials.

Yet for items such as electronics, properly disposing materials does not just stop at the breakdown of plastics and metals.  In many cases, electronic items contain information about the former user and must be properly deleted from the item to avoid giving out private information from getting into the hands of criminals.  An example of how easily criminals can access personal data from used, improperly handled electronics can be seen here at the 5:00 mark of this video. 

This is one more reason why simply disposing e-waste can harm society.  In addition to the negative environmental impact, the possibility of identity theft is real.

Fortunately, for the College’s faculty and staff, this type of scare is not a serious threat.  The College’s Information Technology unit, which handles around 60% of the computers (all of these are Dell products) on the main campus, first ensures that all data is erased before sending the items back to Dell, who responsibly refurbishes them as part of the Reconnect Partnership with the Goodwill (For more info, click here).

The other 40% of main campus computers are managed by the Office of Procurement, which sends items to Computer Recycling of Virginia.  On their website, they have a pledge to their customers to protect from data theft so that if materials such as hard drives are reused, past users’ information do not go along with it.

What can students do?  Well, in addition to a major project we are currently working on this summer that puts more emphasis on reuse of electronics within the community (more on that soon), they can take their items to a few different places.  If you give your item to the Goodwill, they will put it in the same Reconnect Partnership program that IT uses for their Dell computers.  Additionally, Apple will take PC and Mac computers for free if you fill out this request form and allow a few days for the mail to drop off boxes for your items.  Many localities, including the College, have sponsored hazardous waste events where for one day a vendor collects however much e-waste people in the community have.

Bottom line, the smartest thing to do is to make sure your data is completely removed from all machines before donating them away, even if a vendor has a pledge on data security.  Notice that with the Reconnect Partnership, complete data security is not completely ensured, thus the reason for IT wiping hard drives before sending away items.  There is never any second-guessing to whether or not your data is kept out of the hands of criminals if you wipe your electronics before giving them away. 

Mac users looking to completely erase their data can use their system’s discs that came with the computer in order to erase the data.  Directions can be found here.  PC users should try and find a copy of KillDisk, which is software that “zeros” a hard drive to the standards of the US Department of Defense.  Finally, with any hard drive one could remove it from the computer and smash the actual disk with a hammer or some other tool (demonstrated here).  Of course, you could go the blender route, though that is not exactly advised.

When it comes to e-waste, the College is striving to make sure that true “waste management “ is the norm.

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