McCain Campaign BlackBerry Yields Sensitive Data

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If reports that President-Elect Barack Obama might have to give up his BlackBerry for reasons of national security sound paranoid, think again. A Fox television affiliate in Washington, D.C. reports that it was able to purchase a BlackBerry from a fire sale at McCain campaign headquarters for a mere $20, and the handheld came with an unexpected bonus: it was loaded with confidential campaign information.

Most of us rely heavily on PCs, laptops, and mobile devices for all aspects of our lives and work. In the process, those devices are likely to accumulate all sorts of information that we'd rather keep private. The trouble arises when we replace our equipment and want to sell off the old. How can we be sure we're not giving away more than we intended?

As it turns out, the McCain campaign's mistake could have been easily avoided. Wiping a BlackBerry is actually fairly simple for most models. From the Options menu, choose Security Options, then General Settings. From that screen, press the Menu button to pull up a list of actions. Choose Wipe Handheld, and soon you should be all set.

If your BlackBerry is centrally managed by your company's IT department, however, you may need to take additional steps to remove any IT policies that may have been installed.

Finally, if your BlackBerry accepts add-on flash memory cards, make sure you've erased those, too (or just remove them before you sell the handheld).

You should always wipe PCs and laptops before you sell them, also, but this can be more problematic. Many new computers no longer ship with an operating system CD that can be used to reformat the drive. Some manufacturers include a "recovery partition" on the system's hard drive that can reset the system to its factory-new configuration, but you'll need to check the documentation that came with the PC to determine the correct procedure.

Another option, however, is to download a CD image of any of the many free Linux distributions and use that to erase and reformat the drive. Once Linux is installed, you'll be selling a fully-operational PC that's stuffed with lots of useful applications software -- and as a bonus, you won't have to worry about unintentionally violating any of Microsoft's Windows license terms.

But neither of these methods may be sufficient for truly sensitive data. You may want to invest in a software utility that can thoroughly garble the data on old drives, making them unreadable even by data-recovery services.

The important thing to remember is that even if your day-to-day activities don't seem as sensitive as those of a political campaign, even a small business will have secrets worth protecting. Customer names and addresses, company credit card information, billing rates, internal memos and e-mails, and employee lists could all have value to a competitor. Make sure you've cleaned up the drives and flash memory of your old PCs, laptops, and handhelds thoroughly before you put them up for sale.

Has your company ever unwittingly given away confidential information in this way? Are you sure? And what steps are you taking to prevent it happening in future? Sound off in the PC World community forums.

Neil McAllister is a freelance technology writer based in San Francisco.

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