Data is the lifeblood of modern organizations, and while watertight data protection policies are undeniably crucial, the need for robust data destruction methods has never been more pressing. Ultimately, all parties and vendors in your supply chain trust you to maintain the integrity of their data. Once that data is no longer needed, transparency about its whereabouts is vital.

However, there is an alarmingly overlooked facet to this pressing need for organizations: data on electronic devices or cloud repositories can pose a cyber security risk. Even with an established, multi-layered cyber defense strategy, dormant data on storage media or unused digital assets pose potential security risks. For opportunistic or methodical cybercriminals, seizing one asset is usually enough for them to move laterally across an estate. However, if that data were irretrievable, your chances of facing long term damage would significantly reduce.

Fortunately, despite the evolving threat landscape where attackers are innovating their methods and strategies, data destruction remains a failsafe solution, especially for highly regulated industries. It’s also comparatively straightforward to establish data destruction policies and achieve compliance.

What is Data Destruction?

Data destruction permanently and irreversibly removes data from hard drives, storage devices, hardware, cloud-based systems, and other digital assets. This includes the elimination of both physical and digital data, ensuring that there is no risk of unauthorized access to the information and that it can never be recovered.

The primary goal of data destruction is to ensure an organization stays compliant with such statutory regulations as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) while removing all sensitive information from any asset. This includes customer records, login details, passwords, financial transactions, intellectual property, employee names and addresses, classified conversations, and any other data that could identify a person.

By rendering this data unrecoverable, organizations eliminate any possible opportunity for cybercriminals to compromise and leverage the data for ransom or as a way to gain access to critical company systems. As such, the risk of data breaches is lowered, and by extension, so are the associated consequences for victims. Therefore, making data destruction a vital component of your organization’s cyber security strategy is prudent.

Benefits of Data Destruction

Organizations can undoubtedly reduce their attack surface and minimize risk exposure with the help of enterprise-grade cyber security solutions. From incident response management and real-time threat detection to Security Configuration Management (SCM) solutions, these will drastically improve an organization’s cyber security posture.

Data destruction policies complement these measures, offering a last-ditch solution to ensure sensitive data is unlikely to ever fall into the hands of bad actors or even be used fraudulently. By ensuring that discarded, decommissioned IoT devices and media cannot be manipulated, organizations eliminate a commonly exploited entry point for attackers.

In the event of a data breach, demonstrating secure destruction of all unnecessary data reinforces trust among customers, stakeholders, and partners. As we have seen time and time again, data breaches can prove disastrous for organizations, but exercising data destruction processes eliminates exploitable information before it can be compromised.

What’s more, effective data destruction can ultimately lead to cost savings and cash flow resilience. On one level, organizations can reduce their data storage and hardware expenses, along with the associated maintenance and backup costs. Additionally, when a regulation is structured to penalize for each violation, less data prevents unnecessarily bloated regulatory fines.

Regulatory frameworks like GDPR mandate that unneeded data be securely destroyed, and the same process follows when an individual exercises their right to have their personal information deleted. Adhering to these regulations helps organizations avoid fines and civil litigation.

GDPR Rules for Data Destruction

GDPR emphasizes the importance of secure data destruction as a crucial aspect of data processing. Although the regulation does not explicitly identify specific data destruction methods, it does emphasize that organizations must show the same level of care and compliance with the rules surrounding the destruction of data as those applied to the initial processing of data.

Several companies have been fined for breaking GDPR rules, and to avoid that happening for your organization, key requirements have been highlighted to indicate when data destruction is lawful and compliant.

  1. GDPR grants individuals the “right to be forgotten,” which requires organizations to erase personal data upon request unless there is a valid reason to retain it.
  1. Organizations must only collect and retain the minimum amount of data necessary to achieve their stated purpose and must delete it when no longer required.
  1. Companies must implement sufficient controls to ensure the disposal of physical hardware as well as digitized data.
  1. Organizations must be able to demonstrate that data has been securely destroyed and cannot be recovered.

Data Destruction Methods

There are several methods of destroying data, each with its own specific advantages and considerations. While there is no right or wrong method, it’s important to remember that one method will not guarantee complete success. In 2022, Morgan Stanley Wealth Management had to pay $35 million after the SEC charged them with failing to properly dispose of millions of customers’ identifiable information.

Ultimately, the preferred choice will depend on various factors such as data sensitivity, the type of storage, and the organization’s specific requirements.

  • Shredding: The physical destruction of electronic devices like USB drives, mobile phones, laptops, tablets, and other hardware. If the hardware has no purpose or function anymore, physically dismantling devices and all of their hardware components can ensure they cannot be used or reassembled again.
  • Data Erasure: This method involves overwriting data on storage media, effectively replacing the original data. It ensures that previous data is rendered completely unrecoverable to the next user. Given that devices are not physically destroyed, erasure means devices can be reused, which is handy for organizations that want to conserve reusable hardware and resources.
  • Overwriting: This is a common, cost-effective, and convenient method of data destruction. It refers to the use of software to write new data over existing data, effectively encrypting it and making the original information unreadable. Despite its benefits, it may not always be as secure as other data destruction methods for advanced storage media or highly sensitive information. However, it does allow devices to be repurposed.

In a recent data recovery study of 100 hard drives, most still contained residual data. This suggests that most people may assume that their chosen data destruction method is sufficient when, in reality, it isn’t. Therefore, it’s wise to make certain that you are using the correct methods for data destruction.

Depending on the sector and nature of the organization, specific methods of data destruction may prove more reassuring and effective than others. Companies should evaluate the sensitivity and amount of data, the extent of storage media involved, and the overall cost and efficiency implications when deciding on a data destruction process.

Creating a data destruction policy involves several factors, which may sound easy but is often the most difficult process of all. Nonetheless, data destruction policies prove to be a critical component in any multi-layered defense strategy, helping organizations remain resilient and stable in the wake of severe and frequent cyber attacks. Once specific data destruction processes are in effect, organizations will be best positioned to thrive without as much fervent risk of being held legally liable for devastating security breaches while reducing their overall risk exposure.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this guest author article are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect those of Tripwire.