The modern computing environment is one of many interconnected devices, sharing data, and interacting to form a network of content. We often think of our data as singular in location – a workspace here, a folder there, but ultimately in a single form. The reality of the modern computational environment however means that we often have data hidden where we least expect it, often in duplicate, and never where we expect it.
This problem is only further compounded by misunderstandings when it comes to data erasure and destruction. The prevailing “knowledge” that clicking delete erases a file is simply not trust, often leading to leftovers, forensic data, and remnants persisting much longer than expected.
With all of this in mind, how can we best support the consumer’s right to delete their data, and support our workspaces and internal environments to support such erasure? Today, we’re going to talk about this wide issue, and offer a few solutions to solve it. We’ll look at how data is stored, and why deletion is not enough, and we’ll further look at how transferred data can result in fundamental insecurity.
DATA ERASURE AND THE PROBLEMS OF ERASURE
Much of the issues surrounding data remnants and forensic leftovers come from the fundamental misunderstandings that many consumers seem to have. In order to rectify this, we need to first understand exactly how data is stored, and what it means to “delete” data – as well as how this “deletion” is distinctly different from destruction and erasure.
Data is stored in a series of 1s and 0s that are known as binary. This binary code is the most basic of data representations in computing, and, regardless of the storage medium, you are going to find binary. The reason binary is ubiquitous is that it represents states of either “on” or “off” – and given that computers are fundamentally just transistors and switches turning off and on to compute values, this is a great way to represent data.
In terms of a hard drive, this on and off switching is accomplished by changing the magnetic values of areas on a ferrous disk. This disk, which is referred to as the platter, can then be magnetically read to render the data for the computer.
The problem is that seeking this magnetic data randomly is time-consuming, and if the computer were to specifically overwrite this data each time an element had to be deleted, the head that reads the data would have to jump randomly across the platter surface. This of course would be extremely slow and would add to the wear and tear of the drive.
The solution, then, is to simply mark this data for deletion by setting an erased bit and the start and a final erase bit at the end of the data selection. That way, when the hard drive goes to write new data, it knows this data is meant for erasure.
This of course creates an issue – when data is “deleted”, it’s not really deleted, it’s simply marked for eventual erasure via overwriting. This means that, even if you’ve marked data to be deleted, it won’t actually be deleted – it’ll only be marked for eventual overwriting.
COMPOUNDED CONCERN IN MULTIPLE DEVICES
This problem is only further compounded in the modern computing space. The average user no longer only utilizes a single device – in fact, a single user may have tens of devices between their phones, laptops, tablets, and computers. Because of this, the issue is further compounded – not only is your data not actually deleted, it’s left in remnant or “forensic” form across multiple devices and drives.
Consider a use case of transferring a file for presentation. You create the presentation on a desktop, and once completed, you email it to yourself. You check the presentation on a laptop to ensure it presents properly, and then take it with you to work so you can continue editing. At work, you finalize the presentation and move it to a thumb drive. You present the presentation, and then delete the file on all your devices.
The problem now, of course, is that you think you’ve deleted three copies of the file, one on desktop, the other on a laptop, and the final on a thumb drive. The reality is, however, that you’ve not deleted a single file – in reality, each of those three files is still there, and with the right tools, could be recovered.
SOLUTIONS FOR DATA ERASURE
So what’s the solution to this issue? As a consumer, the answer is much the same as a data provider – ensure actual deletion, track versioning, and employ education.
It should be noted that a significant component of this solution is to simply educate users and those who request your data provisioning and management in this issue. We seem to think that we can copy a file from the device to device and ultimately have control over such data. The reality is that, each time you create a file, you’re making that data more insecure and that much is easier to breach. Thus, the solution starts with explaining this to the average user and ensuring that, at best, you have a single data source that can be handled and thereby assured to be the complete data source in question.
Once you have a single source of data, you should also ensure proper versioning. This often means tracking when data is created and destroyed, but also means implementing a system by which this can be better managed. Tracking the changes in your file, as well as tracking when new versions are created and destroyed, is only part of the battle. Administrators and other providers should also create an environment that allows users to track these changes intelligently without accidentally creating a bigger problem that needs to be fixed in the future.
ENSURING ACTUAL DATA ERASURE
The final thing providers should do is implement a secure, powerful, and efficient data erasure solution. There are many ways of going about this, but one strong and proven solution is ClaraWipe. ClaraWipe is a data erasure solution that allows for data to be permanently erased.
How does it do this? Simply put, those 1s and 0s that we previously discussed are overwritten with a pattern of other 1s and 0s, sometimes all 1s or all 0s, in an effort to magnetically erase even the forensic data that is left over in traditional overwriting-centric deletion. The idea here is that the drive itself is rendered empty by changing the magnetic values on the platter itself, which is extremely secure and effective.
It should be noted that ClaraWipe also boasts the benefit of being compliant with a wide range of legal requirements, ranging from the payment card-centric PCI DSS to the EU Data Protection Directive. While this is less important for personal use cases, for data providers, this is an absolute requirement, and should be viewed less as an “added benefit” and more as an “absolute requirement”.
With proper education, a full understanding of how data erasure actually works, and a conceptualization of what forensic data and unintentional duplicates actually are, many of the concerns we’ve raised today can be efficiently handled. Ultimately, while security comes down to the user, education is going to be a huge part of this – as such, implementing an effective erasure solution like ClaraWipe and informing users as to why this is a good solution is extremely important, and should be a strong element of any data management process.