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How To Securely Dispose Of Old Equipment

Taking a sledge hammer to old hardware will keep data thieves away, and it's good for your cardio and upper-body strength too.

For secure data disposal, computer consultant Dan Kronstadt expects to turn to his tool collection. But not the one on his PC. The one in his garage. There, stashed among his rake and lawn mower, is his preferred method for safely destroying more than 10 years of digitized financial records: a sledge hammer.

The two hard drives that he plucked from outdated PCs before sending them to a Los Angeles recycler will be easily smashed to smithereens, he figures. More worrisome, though, are the 75 or so sturdy zip disks that the Quicken devotee used to back up years of banking, mortgage, and investment records. "That's a lot to smash up," he says.

Pulverization has come to the small-business and home-office computing market in a big way. While storage technology these days appears in tiny USB thumb drives and hard disks measured in millimeters, plenty of PC users have cartons and closets jammed with clunky removable media from earlier eras. Disk-wiping programs provide some comfort to owners of retired hard drives. But more permanent solutions have been hard to find for drives as well as out-of-date and hard-to-access zip disks, 3.5-inch diskettes, tapes and smart cards teeming with credit-card, mortgage and brokerage data. Now the twin forces of critical mass and commercial opportunity have busted open new alternatives for consumer data disposal.

For Consumers, Plenty of Options

Consumer interest in safely ditching data has been fueled by a steady stream of reports of personal records found on used equipment. The latest survey to spook PC users came in May when O&O Software, a German maker of disk-erase and -recovery software, bought 100 hard disks on eBay and found them chock full of corporate and institutional data such as charge card numbers, pin numbers, worker evaluations, and court documents.

What can the owner of a lightly used late-model PC do to make sure upgrading their hardware doesn't set their personal data free in the wild? Most PC makers offer trade-in programs for buyers of new PCs. If you store data on CDs and DVDs, you can even buy your own disc shredders. The Data Destroyer Office Pro sells for $43 and chews 15 discs per minute, according to its manufacturer. CD/DVD shredder; Alera Technologies makes a similar device for $50. The devices don't slice the discs but stamp them in a press that destroys the data layers.

A pricklier challenge has been the disposal of small quantities of outdated equipment. A flurry of state and local environmental legislation (California, Maine and Maryland have strict new laws governing PC disposal in landfills) and the formation of a Congressional working group examining a national policy on e-waste have spurred action by PC manufacturers.

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