Blog March 23, 2024

5 Key Tips for Data Destruction

The National Institute of Standards and Technology has refined its 800-88 Guidelines for Media Sanitization publication with an emphasis on sorting media by the sensitivity of the data they contain. Understanding the risks associated with a potential data breach is crucial for organizations to pinpoint the right mix of data destruction tools, record-keeping practices, and comprehensive approaches to media disposal. We distill the nitty-gritty of this comprehensive document into five essential tips for a robust media sanitization and disposal strategy.

5 Data Destruction Tips from NIST 800-88

1. Classify Media by Data Sensitivity and Risk

Efficient IT operations and strong data protection strategies begin with classifying media based on the sensitivity of the information they hold. The NIST recommends that organizations evaluate confidentiality levels by measuring the risks that could arise from a data leak. Considering the legal penalties, reputational damage, revenue loss, and the potential exposure of trade secrets or strategic plans is vital in this assessment.

Identifying the risk levels of different media categories allows decision-makers to craft suitable data eradication protocols. For instance, although a company may determine that their graphic design department’s media bears minimal risk, they might regard the financial department’s materials as highly confidential. In such cases, IT leaders might implement less rigorous procedures for the former, while reserving strict, multi-tiered, auditable, and certified data destruction measures for the latter’s media. Decisions regarding the end-of-life for media—be it physical shredding or data wiping—can be tailored to the assigned levels of confidentiality.
This targeted approach not only ensures proper data protection but also streamlines processes to allocate resources where they are most needed, guaranteeing peace of mind and compliance with standards.

2. Selecting Data Destruction Techniques Based on Media’s Lifecycle and Use

It’s vital for organizations to identify the level of risk associated with various types of media and establish a corresponding hierarchy. Having done so, the method for data destruction can then be tailored to the specific stage in the media’s lifecycle. For instance, devices that are earmarked for redeployment within the company may be subject to different data eradication standards than those slated for permanent removal.
There might be scenarios where your organization opts for the immediate physical demolition of exceptionally sensitive devices at the site before their disposal. Conversely, for internal reuse, you might sanction data wiping accompanied by a formal confirmation process. Regardless of the stage, it’s important to ensure that the process of data obliteration is meticulously documented and verified.

The selection of data destruction tools is also influenced by where the media is in its lifecycle. Certain media, once subjected to processes like degaussing or other physical alterations, cannot be reused. In cases where media holds less sensitive data, your organization might simply choose to reformat or ‘clear’ it before it’s reused or transferred. However, this method of ‘clearing’ should never be applied to any storage media before disposal, regardless of its level of confidentiality. Instead, such media should always undergo thorough sanitization or complete destruction.

While documenting the data destruction process might not be compulsory when media is reused internally or moved within the organization, it is critical to require comprehensive documentation and signed verification when disposing of media, regardless of the level of confidentiality it holds.

3. Utilizing the Right Data Destruction Tools for Each Media Type

Organizations are faced with the essential task of selecting and applying the correct physical and software tools for thorough data destruction across different media types. Whether managed internally or through external vendors, it’s crucial to have a verification process in place to ensure the effectiveness of these tools.

It’s important to recognize that one size does not fit all when it comes to data destruction methods. For instance, while a company might prefer data wiping or purging for all types of media, certain tools may not be compatible with specific systems or platforms. Additionally, mechanical issues and bad sectors on the media can inhibit secure sanitization, rendering these methods ineffective. To combat this, organizations should have alternative procedures, such as physical destruction or magnetic degaussing, ready for use, even in environments that generally favor data purging for sensitive information.

Taking the case of Solid State Disks (SSDs) as an example, the NIST guidelines currently approve three methods for data eradication on SSDs: clear, purge, and destroy. Significantly, degaussing, which is effective for traditional magnetic storage devices, does not have the same result on SSDs because these devices do not rely on magnetic technology to store data. Instead, NIST emphasizes that the processes of sanitization and clearing of SSDs must include verification — this means manual inspections by technicians to confirm data clearance, as well as quality assurance checks by management to ensure the sanctity of the overall process.

Recent studies and reports have suggested that while data clearing and wiping tools might indicate successful erasure, pathways to the data may remain untouched, which could potentially lead to security breaches. This underscores the necessity of verification as a critical component of any secure data destruction practice.

4. Ensuring Secure Data Destruction with Certified Documentation

When managing the complete demise of your digital data, it’s imperative to maintain a detailed and audit-friendly record that encapsulates all the essential information during the destruction process. According to guidelines set by NIST, be diligent in documenting the following critical elements:

• Security Classification of the Media: Indicate whether the data is confidential, sensitive, or public.
• Nature of Destruction: Clearly specify the type of data elimination conducted, such as clearing, purging, damaging, or outright destruction.
• Destruction Methodology: Whether you employ degaussing, overwriting, wiping, cryptographic erasure, or shredding, precisely record the tactic.
• Instruments of Destruction: Do not forget to itemize the tools engaged in the operation, including their version, brand, and model specifics.
• Validation Technique: Describe the method used to confirm the success of the data destruction, from a thorough manual inspection to a brief sampling.
• Confidentiality Status Post-Destruction: Note the level of secrecy of the media following the erasure and its final resting place.
Custodian of the Procedure: Record the name, designation, date, location, and contact details of the individual overseeing the destruction.
• Affirmation by Authority: Ensure that the responsible party provides their signature for validation.

Remember, a well-documented record not only ensures compliance with security standards but also serves as evidence of your commitment to data protection. Keep these considerations at the forefront of your media disposition strategy for a reliable and secure end-of-life data management.

5. Ensuring Data Erasure through Rigorous Management Verification and Quality Checks

Effective data destruction protocols must ensure that all deleted data is irretrievably gone. This is achieved by integrating validation steps using reporting features of the existing sanitization software. Additionally, implementing spot checks and comprehensive reviews is vital to confirm the thoroughness of the data wiping process.

Leaders in IT must mandate that management take an active role in overseeing the data destruction activities, assessing the quality of work, and conducting regular random inspections. The degree of supervision, as well as the extent of verification and quality assurances performed, should correspond with the sensitivity of the information on the media and the potential consequences of a data breach or leak.