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With the now pervasive nature of computing and electronic communication, we all have sound reason to be alarmed about our loss of privacy, and the opportunities for data and identity theft.
Online activity is one important area of concern.
Our inadvertent posts on social networks are not private, but can monitored by criminals, employers, neighbours and ex-partners alike. Furthermore, the casual way in which governments are subjecting their citizens to mass surveillance, secretly recoding the activities of everyone should make us fearful of where things are heading.
"Privacy is not something that I'm merely entitled to, it's an absolute prerequisite." - Marlon Brando
But it's not just when we communicate over the internet that we are exposed. Your laptop and phone hold massive amounts of personal information about you, your browsing history, your business and your family.
When you delete a file on your computer, it almost never gets deleted at all. Instead, your computer simply forgets that it's there, and long deleted files and cached data can easily be recovered using commonly available software tools, even years later. Even when you empty the recycler, the file data does not get removed but remains physically on the device. This is why second-hand and recycled computers have always been a target for identity thieves.
Interestingly, security researchers recently discovered that one of the surreptitious activities performed by "Regin", the spyware believed to originate from a western intelligence agency, is to undelete and recover old files belonging to its victim.
The message is clear. When your old data is more valuable to someone else than you, you shouldn't just "delete it" — you should hard wipe it. In other words, it's not sufficient to simply select "delete" in Windows File Explorer. Instead, you should use special data sanitization software to over-write and destroy file data on your disk or USB thumb drive. Many tools to this exist, but one of the best free ones is Hardwipe.
Hardwipe is unique because it integrates cleanly with the Windows File Explorer, making it really straight-forward to wipe files on-demand. This makes it easy to implement a good data sanitization practice.
The software tool also offers the ability to wipe drives and the Windows recycler. It can also "clean" the free space on a drive to destroy the remnant data of long deleted files that you've probably forgotten about.
It's not about having something to hide, but about having something to fear. Political activists and social justice campaigners are all too painfully aware of how they can be falsely incriminated and tarred by agents of the state.
"...it’s getting to the point where you don't have to have done anything wrong, you simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call, and then they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you've ever made, every friend you've ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis, to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life." - Edward Snowden
Data sanitization software, such as Hardwipe are certainly not the single solution to data theft, but they an important tool in the armoury of those wanting to protect themselves which, if we're honest, is now everyone.
Juan is an independent writer and translator, specializing in technology, software and the internet.
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