Data exposes: don't dream they're over

When Computerworld went looking for embarrassing nuggets of information left behind on used PCs we struck gold first time.

When Computerworld went looking for embarrassing nuggets of information left behind on

used PCs (see: Govt, commercial data found on used PCs) we struck gold first time. And how much more embarrassing does it get: letters from a finance company to defaulting mortgage holders; the company's own finances laid bare in a spreadsheet; and a ra ra memo from the person who would head Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ), Christine Rankin, in the lead up to the organisation's formation in October 1998. "What I can promise you is that we will be a dynamic organisation, and with your skills and commitment, in time the best agency of government," Rankin writes to staff. Was she meaning best at getting in the headlines?

Then there was the letter from then prime minister Jenny Shipley in reply to correspondence concerning the death of a young man who'd apparently been long-term unemployed. She was optimistic a government policy initiative would help alleviate the plight of the chronically out of work. We'll never know whether it would have worked since National was out on its ear a year later.

Computerworld's point was to shock IT managers into the realisation that destruction of data on PCs being tossed out as part of a system upgrade is not a task to be taken lightly. I don't want to be responsible for anyone losing their job, but I would have thought the people in charge of the disposal of the PCs which Computerworld bought and had analysed would have been severely rapped over the knuckles.

Certainly, the finance company, whose bosses are based in Australia, was incredulous when told we had possession of sensitive files that originated with it. We chose to wait until after publication of its name (it was Avco Finance, now owned by GE Finance), before letting it know the disturbing news, so it wouldn't have the opportunity to try legal means to stop us revealing its indentity. If that sounds cowardly, we considered the point best made by naming the company concerned in the hope that readers might put themselves in Avco's shoes, and squirm with it. We were careful not to compromise individuals' private information.

As for the government PCs, they look to have originated at the New Zealand Employment Service, although the second-hand PC dealer that sold them to us says its records show none came from that source and one, in fact, had come from a personnel agency in Manukau City.

Very mysterious - but who knows, perhaps the NZES got a temp in to type up some correspondence for Shipley and Rankin. Whatever the story might be, Shipley wasn't very impressed when asked by a TV news reporter her reaction to Computerworld's discovery of a letter in her name. Surely those in her position can expect better data security than that, she asked. Indeed, they should be able to.

The company that sold us the PCs doesn't come out of this squeaky-clean, either. Ark Recycling makes a promise to those who supply it with PCs that they won't pass out of its hands until all data has been erased. It admits it slipped up. But the real culprits in this sorry tale are the IT managers who saw these PCs out the door in the first place. Squirm away.

Computerworld will continue to buy and test second-hand PCs from time to time, so be warned.

Anthony Doesburg is Computerworld's editor. He can be contacted at anthony-doesburg Letters for publication should be sent to cw-letters@

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