Working up an appetite for destruction

Data disposal without tears


If you're interested in the sweep of history, as I am, then you really should find the time to read through Jacques Barzun's magisterial From Dawn To Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life: 1500 to the Present. In particular, Barzun delivers a wealth of telling anecdotes that perfectly illustrate a point he's trying to make about human behaviour throughout history. One of my favourites is concerned with trains.

On 15 September 1830, passenger travel on steam trains was inaugurated with a 30-mile train line between Manchester and Liverpool. Guests on the world's first passenger train that day included the Duke of Wellington, Doctor Brandreth, and William Huskisson, a man noted as an economist, Member of Parliament, and President of the Board of Trade. After moving along at a steady (and incredibly fast, for the time) rate of 20 miles per hour, the cars stopped about halfway along the journey for water. During the stop, the passengers got out and milled about but, unfortunately, another train approached and struck Huskisson, fatally injuring him. Reports from the time explain that Huskisson was confused by the noise and the movement, and couldn't get out of the way in time, which makes sense. Here was a radically new thing - a large man-made moving object on land - which required a radically new way of adjusting to it. Huskisson didn't adjust in time, and paid with his life.

Security professionals are faced with new changes in technology all the time, and we have to adjust as well. Even more so, we have to shepherd the "normal" users we oversee through these changes, and sometimes - no, most of the time - that can be quite difficult. Unlike William Huskisson, we usually don't have to worry about someone losing a life if things go wrong; no, instead we have to worry about something many people would consider worse: a lawsuit.

Let me explain by asking you two questions. First, do you have a data retention policy in place? I'm sure you do. You have a well-thought out and well-planned backup policy, and your backups are run every day - or perhaps several times a day - and regularly tested to make sure that all is working as planned. Your policy is communicated to your users, and they understand that their data is saved and can be recovered if necessary. Life is good.

Now my second question: do you have a data destruction policy in place? I don't mean a policy avoiding data destruction. I mean a policy specifying what data is actively destroyed when, by whom, and how. Are you actively destroying - not merely throwing out, but removing from existence - data? If you're not, you should be.


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