The value of the ubiquitous flash drives that many of us carry in our pockets or on our key chains is much more than the $10 we pay for them at the big box store. Rather, they’re worth as much as all the data they have ever held.
A couple of instances involving Bowling Green State University and the Oregon food stamp program illustrate the danger.
In the first case, an accounting professor could not locate a flash drive containing several years of student records–only one year of which students were identified by social security numbers instead of student IDs, and he was forced to pay for LifeLock protection for those students and undergo a public relations nightmare. The cost of the protection was nearly $10,000.
In the second case, a flash drive was taken from a vehicle belonging to an employee of Portland Community College. That flash drive contained information on 2,900 recipients of the Oregon Food Stamp Employment and Transition program, run by PCC. Since the information contained names and socia
l security numbers, DebixCredit Protection had to be offered to each of the affected individuals.
In both of these instances, the drives were stolen or misplaced. Similar troubles could befall, however, if the drives fell into the wrong hands after being tossed away.
The Popularity of the Drive
As the capacity of flash drives (also known as thumb drives, memory sticks, jump drives, and USB drives) has grown, so has their popularity. Many professors now store almost all their files on a flash drive that they transport with them everywhere rather than save files to hard drives on one or more computers.
The technology is stable enough that this scenario works well and there are few problems until they outgrow the size on an older drive, or otherwise need to dispose of it.
Imagine that a flash drive has student records or demographic information on it. Deleting the files isn’t a good solution since what actually gets deleted is the reference to the file–the data still remains until it is overwritten.
Someone armed with the right tools (there are even shareware programs available) and knowledge could recover the file without too much trouble.
A number of programs can be found online that purport to permanently delete the files by wiping the free space. Trust them if you want, but according to research by the University of California, San Diego’s Michael Wei, after erasing files with Mac OS X’s secure erase feature, up to 67 percent of the data was still recoverable. Other overwrite operations showed similar results.
Given that, the only reliable method of knowing the evidence is safely eradicated is to destroy the flash drive in such a way that no part of it can be recovered. The steps that follow walk through an approach to this process which delivers definite results.
Step One: Crack Open the Drive
The first order of business is to remove the case. Since flash drives come in a variety of shapes and sizes–from simple rectangles to those shaped like animals, candy, or almost anything else–you may have to vary the tools that you use, but usually a screwdriver or scissors will do the trick.
Crack open the case and toss the parts of it away–you don’t care if anyone sees those items in the trash. The focus needs to be on the circuit board and the chips connected to it. In addition to an LED and any circuitry associated with it that are mounted on the board, you should see a large chip about half the size of a postage stamp–this is the flash memory chip.