In his new tell-all book, The Politician, Andrew Young claims to have discovered a sex tape recorded by John Edwards and his mistress, Rielle Hunter, in a box of trash. Although Hunter apparently tried to dismantle the video by pulling the tape out of the cassette, Young was able to restore it and view the footage with his wife. How do you destroy a sex tape so that it actually stays destroyed?
Burn it, crush it, or shred it. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, there are three levels of media sanitization: clearing, purging, and destroying. “Clearing” refers to any technique that protects against retrieval via simple data recovery programs—like overwriting. “Purging” guards against a laboratory attack by trained professionals with sophisticated equipment. “Degaussing” (more on that below) is an example of “purging.” Actual physical destruction of the device is the most secure approach. Options include incineration, shredding, disintegrating, and pulverizing—any tactic that reduces the data storage device to tiny, unreadable pieces. Burning is the simplest method.
Hunter documented her encounter with Edwards on a MiniDV cassette—a fairly outdated magnetic-tape technology. To remove all digital evidence of her dalliance, she should have burned it, preferably in a licensed incineration facility. If she wanted to keep it as a memento, Hunter should have wiped out all the footage with a “degausser”—an instrument that disrupts and realigns the tape’s magnetic domains, scrambling the encoded information and rendering it permanently unreadable. This method isn’t cheap, though: A government-certified degausser costs thousands of dollars, and bargain-basement versions are unreliable.
Other magnetic media containing homemade pornography, including hard drives and removable USB drives, should be erased in a similar fashion. Instead of clearing the data with a simple overwriting program, NIST urges users to purge data with U.C.-San Diego’s Secure Erase software, or to disassemble the device and degauss all of the exposed parts. Since incineration of a hard drive can cause the release of toxic chemicals, some clever techies—without access to industrial shredding and hole-punching equipment—have devised their own method. They disassemble and sand down the disks so that they can no longer spin, rendering the hard drive unreadable.
Nonmagnetic optical storage media like DVDs should be incinerated or run through a cross-cut shredder. Although most office shredders can handle single CDs and DVDs, the disks must be reduced to particles of no greater than 5 millimeters in length, or 25 square millimeters in total surface area, in order to ensure that data cannot be restored. Unfortunately, only the pricier, high-security, micro-cut shredders produce particles of that size. Once again, burning is the best option.
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