Buyers Scour eBay For Data-Rich Hard Drives - InformationWeek

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1/30/2006
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Buyers Scour eBay For Data-Rich Hard Drives

They're looking for drives that haven't been wiped clean and contain valuable data.

Buyers on eBay troll the online auction site for used drives in the hope that the platters haven't been wiped clean and contain valuable data, including credit card numbers, a researcher said Monday.

Simson Garfinkel, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard's Center for Research on Computation and Society, has been buying used hard drives on eBay since 2001, then analyzing the data he finds on some of the devices.

Of the 236 drives Garfinkel bought, 7 contained more than 300 recoverable credit card numbers; one from had more than 11,000 unique account numbers that he could retrieve.

That's because only 19 percent of drives he acquired had been wiped clean. The majority of previous owners had either not touched the drives or had only run the DOS commands FDISK and FORMAT, which actually leave data on the drive so users with simple diagnostic tools can read the information.

Some eBay buyers are sniffing for such drives. "I think that many drives sell for more than their market value," on eBay, Garfinkel said in an e-mail interview with TechWeb. The only explanation: they're playing the possibilities, and expect there's data on some of the drives they buy.

Garfinkel even tracked down the original owners of the 7 credit card-packed drives, using basic detective work such as analyzing the most common e-mail addresses on the platter and/or reviewing intact Word documents for clues.

The drive with 11,609 unique credit card numbers came from a medical center, which had also disposed of another drive with 81 additional numbers that Garfinkel purchased. Other drives came from an ATM (with 827 unique numbers), a supermarket (1,356 numbers), and an auto dealerships (498 numbers).

By Garfinkel's calculations, about 1,000 used drives are sold daily on eBay. Using his findings -- 3 percent of the drives he purchased contained more than 300 recoverable credit card numbers -- about 30 of those devices have confidential financial information.

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