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DATA DRIVEN: Mr David Ong, founder and managing director of Data Terminator, with the writer.
Photo: Isaac Benjamin Ong.

WHEN you erase your hard drives or thumb drives, how sure are you that the data is completely gone?

Mr David Ong can assure you this is not the case.

Picking up a hard drive that has been deleted and formatted twice (more than what ordinary users would do to purge their data), Mr Ong plugged it into his machine and entered some commands.

Fifteen minutes later, all the formatted and deleted data re-appeared and were categorised neatly in the computer. Not a single corrupted or broken file.

No, this is not a scene from a hacking operation. Just a normal day in the world of Mr Ong’s IT security company Data-Terminator, which specializes in data protection and destruction.

Mr Ong, who left his job at Hewlett-Packard (HP), set up Data-Terminator in 2007,with his friend, Mr Donald Wee. Since then, the company has sealed partnerships across the world.

“With computerisation and virtualisation changing how information is stored and integrated, it’s a matter of time before all your (private) data can be available and accessed anywhere around the world. Therefore protecting such privy data has never been more important than now,” said Mr Ong.

As he had demonstrated to this reporter, simply deleting a file and then formatting the hard drive is not sufficient to ensure that all the data is gone.

Even smashing the hard drive into pieces is not enough. The technology to retrieve data from a storage device like a hard drive exists, even if the storage device is broken into pieces.

Information theft

“One of our most alarming experiences was the discovery of a hard drive we purchased from a scrapyard. We used it to practise data access and recovery, and we found peoples’ personal details, including Human Resource (HR) information, research files, as well as naughty pictures and videos,” said Mr Ong, with a wry smile.

“Very often, we find deleted and formatted hard drives from reputable institutions containing personal data. While that was alarming, it was even more alarming to us when we informed the organisation to only find that response was limited to only damage control, and many companies would not change their policies.”

This is where Data-Terminator comes in to ensure deleted information stays gone forever.

Gone forever

After deleting all files and formatting the hard drives, Data-Terminator would insert the drives into a machine called a “degausser”. This machine delivers an electromagnetic pulse of 20,000 Gauss (5,000 times stronger than a household magnet) to the hard drive. It wipes all data off the disk, permanently.

But, the company does not leave anything to chance.

Another machine named a “crusher” then sends a wicked spike of metal down onto the drive, delivering more than five tons of crushing force, effectively destroying the physical systems of the hard dive. After that, the drives are either incinerated or further shredded, to remove all possibilities of recovery.

Data-Terminator, which counts Marina Bay Sands, Yahoo! and Porsche among itsclients, faced an uphill task in convincing companies that their hard drives are not fully erased when they click the “delete” button.

“Year after year, people just adopted the policy of ‘Why fix what was not broken’. So we went in to educate, to lobby,” said Mr Ong.

“Over a period of two and a half years, to make the authority, and person – many persons in charge understand that what they had that was not broken, was irrelevant, and as a result, they decided to change to a newer, and more up to date security standard… And that’s one of our greatest achievements.”