Today we investigate the problem of disposing of hardware storage devices (say, hard disks) which may contain sensitive data. The question which prompted this discussion “Is it enough to only wipe a flash drive once” is about Flash disks (SSD) and received some very good answers; here, we will try to look at the wider picture.
Confidentiality Issues and How to Avoid Them
Storage devices grow old; at some point we want to get rid of them, either because they broke down and need to be replaced, or because they became too small with regards to what we want to do with them. A storage device does not shrink over time, but our needs increase. Quite some time ago, I was sharing some disk space with about one hundred co-students, and the disk offered a hefty 120 megabytes. At that time, a colorful GIF picture was considered to be the top of technology. Today, we take for granted that we can store 2-hour long HD videos on a cellphone. The increase in disk space shows no sign of slowing down, so we have a steady stream of old disks (or USB sticks or SD cards or even ZIP/Jaz cartridges for the old timers — I will not delve into floppy disks) to dispose of. The problem is that all these pieces of hardware have been used quite liberally to store data, possibly confidential data. For the home user, think about the browser cookies, the saved passwords, the cryptographic private keys… In a business context, just about any data element could be of value for competitors.
This is a matter of confidentiality. There are two generic ways to deal with it: encryption, and destruction.
Disk encryption is about transforming data in a way which is reversible only with the knowledge of a given secret short-sized element called a key. We are talking about symmetric encryption here; the key is a simple sequence of, say, 128 bits chosen at random. The confidentiality issue is not totally obliterated, only severely reduced: supposedly, it is easier to deal with the secrecy of a sequence of 128 bits than that of 100 GB worth of data. Encryption can be done either by the disk itself, by the operating system, or by the application.
Application-based encryption is limited to what the application can control. For instance, it may have to fight a bit with the OS about virtual memory (that’s pure memory from the point of view of the application, but the OS is prone to write it to the disk anyway). Also, most applications do not have any encryption feature, and modifying all of them is out of the question (not even counting the closed-source ones, that’s just too much work).
OS disk encryption is more thorough, since it can be applied on the complete disk for all files from all applications. It has a few drawbacks, though:
- The computer must still be able to boot up; in particular, to read from the disk the code which is used to decrypt data. So there must be at least an unencrypted area on the disk. This can cause some system administration headaches.
- Performance may suffer, for an internal hard disk. An x86 Core2 CPU at 2.4 GHz can encrypt about 160 MB/s with AES (that’s what my PC does with the well-known OpenSSL crypto library): not only do some SSD go faster than that, I also have other things to do with my CPU (my OS is multitasking).
- For external media (USB sticks, Flash cards…), there can be interoperability issues. There is no well-established standard on disk encryption. You could transport some appropriate software on the media itself but most places will not let you install applications as easily.
Encryption on the hardware itself is easier, but you do not really know if the drive does it properly. Also, the drive must keep the key in some way, and you want it to “forget” that key when the media is decommissioned. As Jesper’s answer describes, good encrypted disks keep the key in NVRAM (i.e. RAM with a battery) and can be instructed to forget the key, but this can prove difficult if the disk is broken: if it does not respond to commands anymore, you cannot really be sure that the NVRAM got blanked.
So while encryption is the theoretically appropriate way to go, it is not complete (you still have to manage the confidentiality of the key) and, in practice, it is not easy. Most of all, it works only if it is applied from day one: encryption can do nothing about data which was written before encryption was envisioned at all. So let’s see what can be done to destroy data.
Wiping out data is a popular method; but popular does not necessarily mean efficient. The traditional wiping patterns rely on the idea that each data bit will be written exactly over the bit which was at the same logical emplacement on the disk: this was mostly true in 1996, but technology has evolved. Today’s hard disks do not have “track railings” to guide the read/write heads; instead, they use the data itself as guide. The net result is that the new data may be physically off the previous one by a small bit; the old data is still readable “on the edge”.
Also, modern hard disks do not have visibly bad sectors. Bad sectors still exist, but the disk transparently substitutes good sectors instead of bad sectors. This happens dynamically: when a disk writes some data on a sector and detects that the write operation did not go well, then it will allocate a new good sector from its spare area and do the write again there. From the point of view of the operating system, this is invisible; the only consequence is that the write took a few more milliseconds than could have been expected. However, the data has been written to the bad sector (admittedly, one or two bits of it may be wrong, but this leaves more than 4000 genuine bits) and since the sector is now marked as “bad”, it is forever inaccessible from the host computer. No amount of wiping can do anything about that.
On Flash, the same issue arises, multiplied a thousand times. Flash memory works by “blocks” (a few dozen kilobytes) in which two operations can be done:
- changing a bit from value 1 to value 0;
- erasing a whole block: all the bit blocks are set to 1.
A given block will endure only that many “erase” operations, so Flash devices use wear leveling techniques, in which write operations are scattered all about the place. The “Flash Translation Layer” is a standard wear leveling algorithm, designed to operate smoothly with a FAT filesystem. The wear leveling means that if you try to overwrite a file, the wiping pattern will be most of the time written elsewhere. Moreover, some blocks can be declared as “bad” and remapped to spare blocks, in a way similar to what magnetic hard disks do (only more often). So some data blocks just linger, forever unreachable from any software wiping.
The basic conclusion is that wiping does not work against a determined attacker. Simply overwriting the whole partition with zeros is enough to deter an attacker who will simply plug the disk in a computer: logically, a single write is enough to “remove” the data, and by working on the partition instead of files, you avoid any filesystem shenanigans. But if your enemies are so cheap that they will limit themselves to the logical layer, then you are lucky indeed.
@nealmcb’s question, How can I reliably erase all information on a hard drive? sparked some excellent discussion including NIST’s guidelines for Media Sanitisation.
Without encryption (does not work for data which is already there) and data wiping (does not work reliably, or at all), the remaining solution is physical destruction. It is not that easy, though; a good sledgehammer swing, for instance, though satisfying, is not very effective towards data destruction. After all, this is a hard disk. To destroy its contents, you have to remove the cover (there are often many screws, some of which hidden, and glue, and rivets in some models) and then extract the platters, which are quite rigid disks. A simple office shredder will choke on those (although they would easily munch through older floppy disks). The magnetic layer is not thick, so mechanical abrasion may do the trick: use a sander or a grinder. Otherwise, dipping the platters in concentrated sulfuric acid should work.
For Flash devices, things are simpler: that’s mostly silicon with small bits of copper or aluminium, and a plastic cover. Just burn it.
Bottom-line: media destruction requires resources. In a business environment, this could be a system administrator task, but it will involve extra manpower, safety issues (seriously, a geeky system administrator with access to an acid cauldron or a furnace, isn’t it a bit scary ?) and possibly environmental considerations.
Data security must be thought throughout the complete life cycle of storage devices. Whether you go crypto or physical, you must put some thought and resources into it. Most people will simply store old disks and hope for the problem to get away on its own accord.