There was a cute story a few days ago about a guy named Jeff Finkle who had a Cadillac for sale. The Craigslist posting says it’s going for $15,000 and it needs a little work. What makes it cool is that Vice President Joe Biden leased it for a few years, back when he was Senator Biden. How can you prove Biden used to have it? “At first I didn’t know,” Finkle said, “until the Bluetooth in the car had Beau, Hunter and Jill’s Washington, Philadelphia and other important numbers in it.” He followed up with a check on the warranty and, yep, the car was Biden’s. And so were the phone numbers. Which made me wonder what data I might have left behind, and now I can’t sleep due to the paranoia this has caused.
I don’t think we’re talking about data remanence here. That is a topic of some debate among techies. Wikipedia calls it “the residual representation of digital data that remains even after attempts have been made to remove or erase the data.” Finkle didn’t seem to have had to go to much trouble reconstructing data or bypassing anything. So if he could get Biden’s digits from the Bluetooth, I don’t think there was much of an attempt to delete the data in the first place.
The subject at hand is just how much of your personal digital life is out there that you threw out or sold thinking it was safe. And it’s worrying.
First off, have you ever thrown out a computer? Did you remember to remove the hard drive first? I have a friend from college who works for the State Department in Europe. Part of her job is to make sure every hard drive the State Department writes off as obsolete or damaged is properly cared for. When she applied for the job, one of the requirements was the ability to swing a 10-pound sledgehammer. She has since made the job less physical and more technologically pure, but you get the idea.
Have you ever lost or had a phone stolen? Even if you have the carrier shut down the service, everything that was on that SIM card is still on that SIM card. Or if you send in a damaged phone as part of an insurance claim, do you wipe all the data from it before sending it back? If the screen is cracked, how would you ever know that you got it all? Loads of people get refurbished phones with old data on them. The same obviously applies to tablets and other handheld Internet toys.
We are also in the age of the Internet of Things. The newest models of TVs, washer-driers and air conditioners are all able to access the Internet. Your refrigerator may have the ability to send you a message that you are out of milk — but with that access comes a certain loss of security. When you upgrade your TV, are you likely to remember to remove your Netflix data from it? When you replace your smart fridge with a smarter one, will that data leave with the old unit, including your cell number for the milk warning text? How do you even check that?
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The one thing that I learned a few years ago that scared the crap out of me was this simple fact: the photocopier at Staples, Kinkos or the local library has a hard drive on it that has a copy of every damn document it ever printed. Did you ever photocopy a credit card bill or bank statement? A will? A title to a car or deed to a house? And if you didn’t, did your lawyer or someone in the lawyer’s office? What happened to the hard drive on that copier when the copier gave up the ghost?
I bet the Secret Service didn’t even think to check the VP’s old car.