How Do I Completely Erase a Hard Drive?

Hard Drive Eraser

When it comes to data erasure, it would seem many people think that clicking “empty trash” is adequate. That’s unfortunate, because not only is that thinking inadequate in most typical cases, it’s also extremely dangerous. What we typically consider an act of “data erasing” in the modern workspace is often fundamentally insecure and dangerous, and relying upon these methods can expose you, your clients, and your work to monumental threats.


Adopting a secure data erasure process is not only important in terms of your ethical and moral obligations as a data provider, it’s also extremely important to your security posture. Add on to this the fact that your company image is represented entirely by what you’re able to do – and what damage you can prevent – and adopting a more secure method of data erasure becomes that much more important and fundamental to success.


Let’s look at why typical data deletion is not enough, and what systems can be implemented to negate these issues.

Why Deletion Is Not Enough

In order to understand why simple deletion is not enough, we should consider how data is stored on the hard drive. Drives store data as a series of 1s and 0s in a magnetic medium on the platter of a hard drive. This storage method ultimately creates patterns on the drive that represent the data structure of the contents of that drive, allowing for data to be read in a magnetic fashion.


When data is deleted, what is actually happening is not “deletion” in the true sense of the word. During this process, data is simply marked for deletion, and as more space is required by the operating system, this section of the drive is written over and utilized for storage. This makes for extremely fast data handling, but unfortunately, does not actually erase any data.


What you end up getting instead is forensic data, or data that is left on the drive and marked as “deleted”, but is still recoverable for those who know what they’re doing. This results in incredible amounts of insecurity, in part because of the fact that data is recoverable, and in part because the owner assumes that data is erased when it’s not.

Methods of Complete Erasure

Before we dive into strong solutions for data erasure, we need to differentiate further on some terminology. First and foremost, we need to discuss erasure and destruction, as these terms are often conflated with one another.

Drive Destruction is Not Erasure

While destruction is often conflated with erasure when talking about data handling processes, the fact is that they are fundamentally different. Methods including using magnetic fields to render drives unusable, shredding the drives, or even pulverizing them are effective at removing the data from a physical viewpoint, and in this way, we could consider it “data destruction”. The problem is that the drive is destroyed in all of these processes, and as such, these methods are a  very expensive way of dealing with the issues of stored data.


Additionally, in some cases, this destruction doesn’t even remove the security concern at hand. First, you typically have to send the drive out of a secure environment to a second company processing the drives, which makes the data insecure through transit. Second, the drive is destroyed, but in some cases (such as with SSDs and other flash-based memory), even a single surviving chip could contain a great amount of data that exposes your data in an insecure manner.


The simple fact is that drive destruction, while not perfect, is still too expensive, too risky, and too time-consuming for most low-security data concerns.

Software Based Data Erasure

Thankfully, we have some less expensive and consuming methodologies at hand. One of the best approaches is using software-based drive erasure. In this case, the software overwrites the actual data itself with a set pattern. This set, usually all zeroes, all ones, or a semi-randomized pattern, “resets” the drive into a forensically empty drive, resulting in a clean drive that can be used for many different uses.


This is fundamentally more secure than simple erasure and formatting, because you’re not just marking the data for removal or changing the file format, you’re actually changing the magnetic value of the drive itself in order to actually destroy the data without affecting the drive itself. That being said, this solution is also fundamentally less secure than shredding or destruction, with the caveat that, while you lose some measure of absolute security at the basal level, you also end up with a drive that can actually be used and an auditable trail of data destruction.

Elements of an Effective Erasure System

Now that we know what type of solution we want to use, what specific implementation is best? We can identify the optimum system by breaking down what we expect our solution to have on offer.


First, our solution should be able to use patterns. Utilizing different patterns for different data sets, or even for the same data set over multiple passes, can ensure that data is properly erased. While software-based tools are very powerful, magnetic storage can leave traces of erased data through partially set bits that were “skipped” during initial passes, so ensuring multiple passes are available can result in more secure erasure.


Second, we need to have a solution which is compliant with specific legal requirements that might be inherent in the type of data that we handle. For instance, PCI DSS or the Data Protection Directive both have relatively strong protections provided to data from a legal standpoint, and ensuring that your solution is compliant with such regulations is extremely important.


Third, our solution should be simple to use without minimal training and hardware cost for setting up, but at the same time, it should be very powerful. We need a solution that is adaptable without requiring extensive professional education and training in order to leverage those values.

ClaraWipe

ClaraWipe represents all of the elements that we require. Not only is ClaraWipe extremely powerful, offering multiple passes, random character substitution, and other such advanced data processing modes, it also is easy enough to use without requiring extensive training. Clarawipe can be integrated into existing solutions without massive restructuring or rebuilding, and can actually be integrated into your current stack.


Most importantly, ClaraWipe meets or exceeds all major national, international regulatory and technical standards including:


  • Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOx)
  • HIPAA & HITECH
  • The Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003 (FACTA)
  • US Department of Defense 5220.22-M
  • CSEC ITSG-06
  • Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS)
  • Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA)
  • EU data protection directive of 1995
  • Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA)
  • California Senate Bill 1386

Simply put, Clarawipe matches every single one of our considerations, delivering extreme value and security in all stages of the data erasure process.

Outro

As we said at the beginning of this piece, implementing a solution for secure data erasure is hugely important. Ignoring your moral, legal, and ethical obligations, adopting a secure posture for data destruction can only increase your business image, and, frankly, not adopting this process does more harm than the relatively low-value savings that action offers. Failure to adopt this process makes for massive insecurity, adds cost for data in processing and operation, and increases the extreme potential for massive security failures.

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