Shredding (Data, Not The Mountain)

Here in Northern New Mexico, “shredding” often refers to a snowboarding technique, or just snowboarding in general. Shredding of a different kind made the national news last week, however, when strips of shredded documents with confidential information were found at a Thanksgiving day parade.

It seems that some sensitive documents with Social Security numbers, credit card numbers and other sensitive info were shredded and used for confetti at the parade. The problem was that because an inexpensive shredder was used, parade-goers were able to reassemble portions of some of the documents and discover the contents.

Shredding is good and I do it myself. It is a valuable technique to help prevent identity theft and theft of sensitive company information. Dumpster divers hate it. I strongly recommend that everyone do it at home and at work to destroy no-longer-needed sensitive documents. (Be sure to keep receipts, invoices and other documents for the appropriate time as required by law, regulation and your legal counsel, however!)

Normal shredders – especially the very inexpensive ones used in most homes and small businesses – tend to be “strip-cut shredders”. These shredders turn documents in to thin strips of paper, maybe ¼ inch wide. Home versions start at about $12. The strips from these shredders can be reassembled by hand, as in the case of the confetti, or by computer imaging algorithm.

Shredders that are designed for more sensitive documents are called “cross-cut shredders”. These cut the long strips into very short strips. Inexpensive cross-cut shredders (about $30) cut into strips about ¼ inch by 1 ½ inches. More expensive commercial-grade shredders may cut a similar size in high volume or may be “particle-cut” shredders that cut 2mm x 15 mm or smaller.

There are standard sizes for shredded documents and more information can be found on Wikipedia.  As with many standards, there is no guarantee that they are followed, or that there is any reason to do so in many situations.

The US Department of Defense held a contest to find out how easy it was to reassemble shredded documents. While the winning team did not completely reassemble every document, they did a thorough job in very little time. If you look at the pictures, the ones that were almost completely reassembled appear to be strip-cut while that that were minimally reassembled appear to be cross-cut.

There, of course, other ways to destroy documents including burning and chemical destruction. CDs and DVDs can be shredded by some shredders or “erased” by inexpensive devices that grind down the surface. Expired credit cards can be shredded by even inexpensive home shredders.

What should you do? First, get a home shredder, cross-cut if you can find one within your budget. Use it to shred everything with sensitive information that does not need to be saved for tax or other legal reasons. Second, check your organization’s policy on document destruction and be sure it is up-to-date and being followed.

I have boxes of old records in my office, many of which are way past the legal need to retain them. There is no way I can use a home shredder with a wastebasket to destroy them all and a bonfire is inappropriate and probably illegal given the dry weather we’ve had recently. So what can I do? I’m working with our local Chamber of Commerce to get a shredder truck to come to town. These trucks have huge cross-cut or particle shredders. Companies often engage them to come and shred large quantities of documents. Recently more and more communities are arranging for the trucks to come and shred documents for small businesses and individuals. Because banks or Chambers of Commerce sponsor them, they will often shred some amount of documents (maybe two or three “Bankers boxes” worth) for little or no cost.

What are you doing to destroy needless documents? In Learning Tree course 468 we discuss not only shredding documents, but also destroying data on magnetic media. We explain how just over-writing the data is not enough.

John McDermott

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