April 20, 2005 4:00 AM PDT

Skeletons on your hard drive

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matter of attentiveness, Acronis' Lawton said. By using multiple overwrites featuring different character sets, he said, consumers can approach the same level of protection required by the U.S. Department of Defense. The department requires a minimum of at least four passes with wiping tools, in cases where it does not mandate that a drive is destroyed.

Data-cleaning tips

The only way to completely erase data from a hard drive is to use wiping software and then destroy the drive, experts say. Here are examples of available resources.

Wiping software
McAfee QuickClean 2.0 Promises to clear up disk space and remove unwanted data. Costs $9.95.
Acronis Drive Cleanser 6.0 Acronis' purpose-built disk-cleaning software, sold for $49.99.
Clean Machine Plus 2.0 Made by HFK Creative Enterprises, offers Internet security and wiping tools for $49.95.
Smash 2.0 Includes encryption and decryption utilities plus wiping tools. $24.95.
iSafeguard Freeware 5.0 A version of MXC Software's e-mail encryption and wiping applications, available for free download.
Recycling programs
Apple Computer For a $30 fee, Apple will take back your computers and destroy them.
Dell For $10, Dell will take delivery of old machines for destruction.
Hewlett-Packard For $13 to $34, depending on the equipment, HP will ship and trash your old gear.
IBM For $30, IBM will take your old PCs back and recycle them.
Seagate Technology Provides information on its hard-drive recycling programs.
Lawton believes that taking such a meticulous approach with the software, which could take as long as several hours, often takes more time than most consumers are willing to wait.

"For a consumer who is going to be getting rid of a disk, giving it away or passing it along, if you overwrite seven times, chances are that you're doing pretty well. While a company might look at running a wiping application 35 times," Lawton said. "On the other hand, a fast wipe is pretty insufficient."

The need to keep at it means those people who go to the trouble of employing outside technology to erase their sensitive data could still be doing too little. In general, experts agreed, the best approach in trying to completely erase information is to use a combination of data removal software and material destruction.

"If you've got truly classified info, then you're going to crush or degauss the drive somehow," Lawton said. Degaussing is a form of magnetic storage device cleansing used primarily on large groups of machines by businesses.

All of the major PC makers and most hard-drive makers offer recycling programs where, for a fee of between $20 and $30, they will professionally destroy used devices. Though these programs have traditionally attracted primarily business customers, executives running the programs at Dell and IBM said consumers are increasingly taking advantage of them.

"PCs and hard drives are ripe with information that is sensitive or confidential, so we go to great lengths to make sure everything is destroyed as part of our asset recovery programs," said IBM's Ferguson.

Garfinkel, whose thesis focuses on computer security, chiefly blames companies making operating system software for failing

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