According to the Washington Post’s Dan Eggen the White House routinely erased e-mail from the first three years of their administration (outside link). Now this isn’t normally an issue I’d bring to your attention, but for the technology aspect of the story. It seems that what the government was doing was “erasing” the emails by simply taping over the data each day.
A lot of Email managers still use magnetic tape as a backup — you know, so they can find that email you accidentally deleted? Now, if you’re as old as I am, you remember that magnetic tapes can be recorded over but that they leave some data behind. I learned this one time when I recorded over my little brother’s Donovan tape with some Suicidal Tendencies tape I borrowed from a friend — yes, I was a budding young pirate. Anyway, the tape that I thought was Suicidal Tendencies was more like “Suicidal Donovan.”
Now, how is this important to you? Well, in two ways. First, it’s the law: the UW records and archives your email and those emails are subject to public disclosure laws. So, unless you can claim executive privilege, anything you say on email can be requested through the AGs office. And second, the hard drives on your computers here and at home are magnetic, just like the tapes, and as such, even if you format the drive, data can still be recovered off of them. Even if you take a big magnet, or drill a hole in the drive, or burn it — or whatever — physically to destroy the drive, data can be recovered.
“Tim, what do you do to our hard drives when you replace the computers here at work?” I use a Knoppix boot disk that has a Linux utility called “shred” on it. What shred does (when run properly) is overwrite every block of data on the disk with random numbers. It’s the only way to be sure.
So… Shred those hard drives before you sell your old computer! The link above helps walk you through it. It’s not that hard.