Where does your data center trash go? by Doug Mohney
Where does your data center trash go? Everything from paper printouts to servers is ultimately thrown out or recycled, but the more complicated the product, the more headaches are involved. However, even something as simple as paper has issues when it comes to the proper disposal before recycling.
Back in the days of my youth, I worked for a card-carrying member of the professionally paranoid. He didn't work for the CIA or other government three-letter agency, but had his own insights on security since he had done his own share of dumpster diving and other hacker-esque activities in his youth.
Dumpster diving is the activity of going through a trash bin to see what sort of intellectual or hardware valuables can be found; it really is a story of one man's trash being another man's treasure. Mr. Professionally Paranoid -- let's call him PP for short -- would come across phone lists, old-but-still-useful manuals and even running computer hardware back when he was digging through the garbage of many a company back in the '70s and '80s.
Today, paper tends to be diverted to a recycling bin and surplus computer hardware can now go on eBay or picked up on consignment by any number of third-party dealers for parts or recycling. But the issues of security remain, even if your data center's waste material is designated to be recycled.
Recycling in some respects is a godsend for dumpster divers. All the paper goes into one central location and it is typically nice and clean, maybe even nearly organized for easier packing. Back in the old days, everything would get thrown into one bin -- PP made a point of taking some of his semi-sensitive stuff he was too time constrained to shred and smear coffee grounds on it to discolor and make the paper soggy. (Of course PP thought EVERYTHING was sensitive, from the phone lists to extra copies of sales documentation).
Ideally, you should shred everything, but who has the time or money? Accounting and HR departments need shredders as standard equipment with everyone having access to a shredder as easily as a copier. And a modern shredder that turns everything into paper confetti, not one of those ones that simply make long strips.
Hardware is a much trickier issue. It should go without saying that surplus hard drives should be zeroed-out before they get close to a loading dock by doing a hard format and/or using an appropriate software tool to write all zeros, all ones, and then finally all zeros again to erase any sensitive customer data. This goes double for any sort of device that has a scanner on it, be it a fancier multi-function printer or a simple copier or fax that might have an onboard hard drive.
If you feel really extreme, you may want to borrow/rent a hard disk shredder. These monsters take in up to full height 5.25 inch disk drives in one end and near-instantly convert them into scrap metal in a TopGear-esque demonstration of absurd mechanical power.
You can then move computers and other electronic devices along to their next destination, be it eBay -- the ultimately in recycling -- a third-party consignment shop, or donating them to a suitable charity.
The moral of the story is it's good to be green, but it is better to be green and safe.