Don?t send your secrets out the door when donating computer equipment

Are you sacrificing data security by donating old or unused equipment? John McCormick warns against giving away company secrets when donating used assets, and he takes a quick look at a new security enhancement for Yahoo! e-mail customers.

Network administrators play an important role in charitable giving. As IT departments grow and computer technology advances, old computer equipment is donated to charities either to be sold in thrift stores or given directly to the needy. For the donor, charitable donation solves the problem of what to do with old hardware that otherwise would cost money to discard.

You might be surprised how many charities do not have computers. Charities such as rural Humane Societies, volunteer fire departments, or even small local governments have a difficult time justifying the cost of a new PC. To the disadvantaged, these corporate gifts offer a way to join the computer revolution. To smaller charities, it means they have more money left over to perform their main function. Donations also aid companies indirectly by increasing the pool of potential computer-literate employees.

When should you consider equipment obsolete? A good indicator is if you have a computer that does not possess enough power to run standard operating systems. Also, computers can become obsolete if you have a large number of one model and only a handful of another brand. The extra costs of supporting the oddball brands will make them troublesome in most networked environments. However, for an individual or small charity, it might be the perfect computer.

Security concerns
However, despite the obvious benefits to society, I do feel you should not give a formatted computer away. Have you given any thought to all those old files on your hard drive? There are predators out there buying up thrift store computers just to surf through your files. This high-tech form of dumpster diving involves hackers with sophisticated software that helps them recover deleted files on your hard drive. All they need are a few numbers (credit cards, bank accounts, etc.) to make your life miserable. Or to discover a few company secrets.

Even if you delete all your files and overwrite them, there is always someone who will decide it's worth their time to attempt advanced data recovery on the drive. To give you a real-life example, I once purchased recycled floppy disks from Radio Shack. Guess what? Not one of the thousands of floppies I purchased had been bulk erased!

Of course, the level of concern should be proportional to the threat. Many office computers can safely be donated after some routine file sanitizing. Other computers, especially those that were in your accounting office, executive suite, or research department, should have the hard drives removed and physically destroyed. Just because the information is old does not mean it is not valuable to someone else.

E-mail alert update!
Just a quick note updating an earlier column that suggested using free e-mail accounts as part of a business security strategy. Yahoo! Mail has recently added a new feature. When you attach a file to an e-mail, the attachment is scanned for virus content by Symantec’s Norton AntiVirus. This means your outgoing files are sanitized and any incoming files from other Yahoo! accounts will be checked.

You still have to be careful, as malicious users can get around the automatic protection. However, exchanging attachments with trusted users through Yahoo! Mail can give you confidence that no one is accidentally sending a virus. Obviously, the advantages are that Yahoo! will be careful to keep their antivirus software up-to-date and Symantec will get virus updates to Yahoo! quickly.

John McCormick is a security consultant and technical writer (five books, 14,000 plus articles and columns) who has been working with computers for more than 35 years.

Have a comment?
If you'd like to share your opinion, please post a comment at the bottom of this page or send the editor an e-mail.


Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox