There was a story today in the New York Times about New Jersey State Comptroller Matthew Boxer's discovery during an audit of surplus state computers slated for auction that 79% of them still had readily accessible information on their hard drives.
Information was found on 46 of the 58 computers scheduled to be sold, and on 32 of those 46, the information found was highly personal in nature that should have never been made public.
For instance, one computer - a laptop - had been used by a judge, and "contained confidential memos the judge had written about possible misconduct by two lawyers, and the emotional problems of a third," the Times article stated. Personal financial information about the judge, including tax returns, were also found on the laptop.
Other computer drives held information concerning children under state supervision, including their birth dates and Medicaid numbers; other drives contained case information regarding abused children; and still others contained Social Security numbers of state personnel along with their performance reviews, passwords and emails.
The computers came from New Jersey's judicial system, the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Health and Senior Services, and the Office of Administrative Law, and together contained information pertaining to thousands of people.
The Times article stated that Comptroller Boxer's audit (you can read his report in PDF here) found that one of the state agencies above owned a device to magnetically erase its computer drives before their disposal, but that "employees did not like to use it because it was noisy."
Comptroller Boxer was quoted as saying he found that "offensive." I might have used more descriptive words.
While this specific auction was halted before any damage was done, it is highly likely that the state government of New Jersey has auctioned or sold hundreds of computers in the past that still contained personal data on them. The state has halted all computer equipment auctions until a new process to ensure this doesn't happen again is in place.
Hopefully, the process will cover copier machines, which also have drives in them that often are not wiped clean either.
As I noted in 2008, a computer purchased on eBay for £35 contained the records of 1 million customers of Natwest and Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS).
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.