One of the most discomfiting realities of technology in our interconnected age is that we are continually fighting for data privacy. Amid the fracas of junk email, big data and obtrusive apps, it’s hard to guarantee that all our personally identifiable information stays safe.
Technology no longer crawls at the glacial pace it did two decades ago.
On the contrary, today it seems like everyone wants to know everything about you. I can’t tell you how many times I had to enter my phone number just to sign up for an online service or download a free application.
Of course, we all know the hallmarks of reputable companies that value consumer privacy right?
- For one, good companies don’t try to hoodwink their clients into opting in to mailing lists.
- Secondly, good companies are transparent and openly admit data breaches.
- Third, strong companies take a proprietary interest in user information and protect it as if it were their own.
But the truth is the best mechanism for data protection starts with you. It’s your data; therefore, the onus is on us to make sure it’s locked down.
The Secure Erase Secret
If you own a solid state drive (SSD), one of the best ways to obliterate all your data is to do a secure erase.
Michael Wei and his team of data scientists from the University of California, San Diego published a 13 page whitepaper explicating how to reliably erase data from SSDs. You can also check out an easier read of the report as a series of slides on the UCSD.edu website but the bottom line is that data sanitation techniques such as secure erase are essential for data security.
All ATA-based drives built after 2001 have the ability to erase everything on the drive and many SSD vendors offer purging utilities that make data recovery mathematically impossible.
Samsung is a case in point.
I recently upgraded the spinning disk in my laptop to the lovely Samsung 840 Pro 512GB SSD. Since the Amazon price was reasonable and reviews were estimable I took the plung and spent $300.
I immediately noticed a dramatic speed improvement especially in boot time.
After poking around the utilities, I kicked open Samsung’s drive management tool, called Magician, and started playing with the settings.
In the bottom left section of Magician, there’s an option called Data Security.
Clicking that opens the secure erase screen and prepares your drive for extermination.
If you’re ever planning to sell your hard drive it’s essential that you do a secure erase first.
Yes, most people aren’t ignoble enough to attempt data restoration from used drives; however, it’s always prudent to securely wipe the drive instead of just formatting it because secure wipe really does render your data irretrievable (even by the NSA).
In 2012, computer forensics expert Yuri Gubanov released a 10 page research paper explaining how SSDs self-destroy court evidence.
Secure erase doesn’t merely flush cells in the flash chips, it permanently destroys all data at the hardware level. This includes special areas reserved for the system. In the case of my Samsung, the erase command even destroys the encryption key so any encrypted data becomes useless.
One thing I should mention is that you can’t secure erase the drive if Windows is running on it but Magician offers an integrated utility that builds a bootable partition on a USB drive.
If your hard drive vendor doesn’t have secure erase functionality, I suggest coughing up $5 bucks and buying Parted Magic. In addition to letting you securely erase your drive, you’ll get nifty features for cloning your entire hard drive, recovering lost files and bench-marking performance.
The Bottom Line
If you use secure erase to destroy your hard drive you can rest assured that no one will ever recover the data (including you). Therefore, it’s imperative that you have your data backed up before nuking the drive because once it’s gone – it really gone.
Have you had any issues securely erasing your hard drive? Something didn’t go as expected? Please share in the comments below!