Proper Disposal of Outdated Media: A Cautionary Tale - Digital Photography School
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Proper Disposal of Outdated Media: A Cautionary Tale

If I were to guess, I’d say it’s safe to assume that you’ve accumulated quite a sizable image library. Regardless of whether you’ve been shooting digitally for a decade or even just a year or two, all of those ones and zeros dancing happily inside your computer as image files are piling up. Don’t forget about all of those photos you’ve scanned in from your film days. Digitized any slides lately? How about the photo stream from your phone? Megabytes become gigabytes, gigabytes become terabytes, and over time the sheer volume of data can become mind boggling.

You’re backing it all up, right? Of course you are.

I think that being neurotic about backing up our images is pretty much a universal character trait of photographers. Or should be. When I shoot a wedding the cards are all backed up once before I even leave the venue. When I get home they are dumped from the cards to the computer. Then again to an external hard drive. I can’t think about anything else until the entire shoot exists in three places. I’m a little less uptight about commercial shoots, but only a little. For those, I only require a double backup. But it doesn’t end there. The catalog on my main drive automatically syncs to an external hard drive. Once a month it all gets synced to a second external drive which is stored off-site. And if that’s not enough, I’m starting to use the Copy cloud storage service as well. It’s like wearing a belt AND suspenders.

But technology changes over time, which means that our methods of backing up our data also change. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t that long ago that you were backing up your images on CDs. Towering piles of them. The piles began to shrink just a bit when DVDs became a viable option. External hard drives? Awesome. But then the clouds parted and we were suddenly able to store our prized data among them. Over time, those piles of shiny discs become obsolete. Once everything is backed up on current media, the obvious thing to do would be to trash the discs and outdated media, right?

Not so fast. And this is where our cautionary tale really begins.

First, a little background. The photo below is the bridge at Northside Drive and Bankhead Highway in downtown Atlanta. Originally built in 1912, it was a major thoroughfare into the city long before the interstate highway system was even an idea on a drafting board. Years of progress, neglect, and shifting priorities– as well as the fact that the far end of the bridge now simply stops in mid-air 100 feet above some railroad tracks– have transformed it into “The Bridge to Nowhere.”  The bridge has become a haven and encampment for some of Atlanta’s homeless population. I’ve photographed it several times over the years.

bridge-to-nowhere-guyer-photography

This particular image did not come from my hard drive or any of my backups. This image came off a Flickr photostream. Not MY Flickr photostream, but A Flickr photostream. This photo had been part of a multi-DVD backup that I simply threw in the trash several years ago when I switched to external hard drives. I have no earthly idea how, why, or where these discs were found, or what possessed the finder to check what was on them. Apparently he/she could not have just been a run-of-the-mill, garbage-picking identity thief like everyone else. No. This culprit was content to post eight of my photos to their Flickr page.

bridge-to-nowhere-guyer-photography2

We are practically hard-wired to protect our personal and financial information by shredding or otherwise destroying it before it goes in the trash. Sometimes I even throw pieces of stuff away in different trash cans. Do you really want your images showing up on a photo sharing site without your knowledge? How about a stock agency? Obviously, the answer is a resounding NO. So, what do you do?  Simple. Destroy the backup before you dispose of it.  Some shredders are powerful enough for discs. If you don’t have a shredder, a hammer, screwdriver, knife, letter opener, or any sharp object can inflict enough damage to the disc surface to prevent anyone from misappropriating your images. External hard drives and jump drives can either be physically destroyed, or be wiped and rendered unrecoverable with programs like KillDisk.

As technology continues its upward march, concerns over the best way to dispose of digital media will hopefully become less and less of an issue. With bigger and bigger file sizes– particularly from cameras with full frame sensors– backup storage options are becoming more and more sophisticated, hopefully making concerns over proper disposal eventually a moot point. In the meantime, however, they’re your photos. Protect them.

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Jeff Guyer is a commercial/portrait photographer based in Atlanta, GA. Still an avid street photographer and film shooter, Jeff also launched a kids photography class ("Digital Photo Challenges") three years ago. You can check out more of his work at Guyer Photography, and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

  • klaus

    There are commercial disc scramblers available that can be used before discarding DVDs. It’s just like a paper shredder, but it basically rearranges all the pixels. You can have your images rearranged to look like the Mona Lisa.

  • http://www.jacobbates.com Jacob

    A cross-cut shredder that can handle credit cards and DVDs/CDs is a must-have for everyone. They’re not that expensive, and they more than pay for themselves if you think of how much identity theft will cost you.

    A fun trick with CD-Rs/DVD-Rs is to throw them in the microwave for a few seconds. It creates an awesome light show, and will destroy any data to the point that it would be cost-prohibitive to recover and repair it. Just make sure you do this with a microwave you don’t care about destroying :-).

    Hard drives are another concern, and can be more time consuming to destroy. I typically zero mine out if they are still operational. After that, (or if they’re not operational anymore) i disassemble them, run strong magnets over the disks, and scratch the heck out of them on the driveway or something. Again, someone might be able to recover some data from them, but it would cost them thousands of dollars to send them to a specialist.

  • klaus

    Can’t you put a hard drive in the microwave, too?

  • Jacob

    @Klaus: I’ve never tried that! My guess is that it wouldn’t work very well because hard drive platters are made of stronger stuff than the thin coating that holds the data on a CD-R. Worth a shot, though. Anyone have experience with putting hard drive platters in the microwave?

  • http://www.jadecadelina.com mr.jade

    I’ll like the idea of a putting hard drive platters in the microwave. this is what happens when you put a device with circuitry, metallic parts and plastics. found this on youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5vOHwRZjXE

    reformatting your hard drive is one option, removing the partition via the BIOS settings and there are softwares out there that can wipe your whole hard drive clean.

    if you want to to destroy your backup Data CD’s or DVD’s then cut them into pieces or burn them.

    if you are really serious about wiping your hard drive clean then try running a large magnet around your hard drive platters or a hard drive degausser to alter the magnetic charge on a hard drive platter. hard drive degaussers are great because they don’t just remove your data but also wipes the firmware or software that makes the hard drive work.

  • http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ Mridula

    The idea never ever even occurred to me!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • Kevin Farlon

    Good content in your article. I’m unclear though if you’re trying to illustrate that both images are the same, and the second image is one that someone found, processed, and then passed it off as their own. If that is the case, I’m actually pretty sure the 2 images you have provided are not the same. The perspective is a little different, look at the metal column on the bridge how it leans different, the clouds are completely different, etc. Also, in the bottom image, you can tell that the photographer shot it further to the right and further up as more of the sidewalk to the left of the bridge is visible, something like this just can’t be photoshopped if I had to guess. Also, the bend in the metal fencing to the left is completely different in both images.

  • Pete Zerria

    Destroying discarded media is important in this day and age and I totally agree with your advice but we all need to think twice before porting data, any data to Cloud storage. There are documented cases of stolen data and ideas from this type of storage. In short, regardless of robust encryption and secure passwords — if one’s property is out of one’s direct possession and control it is not secure.

    Pete Zerria

  • http://www.jeffguyerphotography.com Jeff Guyer

    I completely agree, Pete. While I use cloud storage for temporary backups and delivering images to clients, I would never rely on it for any kind of secure, permanent backup. I sleep much better at night knowing there is an off-site physical backup.

  • http://www.jeffguyerphotography.com Jeff Guyer

    Kevin– They are not the same image. I simply used two images from the same backup to illustrate the point.

  • Allison

    Great article Jeff! I’m not a fan of cloud storage myself. I’m always concerned about the security with cloud storage and technology in general. I do however treat all data discs equally and shred them whether financial or otherwise.

  • Darren P

    I simply drive a nail straight through the hard disk (and all platters) before throwing in the trash. Quicker than running any software kill. CD/DVDs are just snapped or bent in half. Try salvaging any of those!

  • Adam

    One forgotten suggestion: Encrypt your backup devices first. If this was done on those old backup CD’s / DVD’s then you might have still had controll of your data even if you forgot to break it first.

    With thoroughly breaking the device, that will offer the best combo.

  • silviu

    Encrypting backups is a so-so ideea – if you loose the key / password the backups are worthless. Also encryption software might become obsolete and you might find yourself scrambling to find a way to decrypt a 10 year old backup.

    Microwaving works but the fumes are toxic.

    OTOH I keep all my old and discarded backups at a trusted relative. This way if disaster should strike and destroy all my 3 copies I’ll still be able to piece something back together.

  • MWRyder

    A quick and simple way to destroy hard drives is to use a drill to make multiple holes in the platters. Not only will this destroy the data directly under the hole but the platters will have to be moved to another case before someone can even attempt to read the remaining data.
    I also use TrueCrypt to encrypt my backup drive. I use a portion of a song for the pass phrase so I don’t have to worry about forgetting it. I added some other characters to the phrase to make it even harder to break but once I think about the phrase the added characters are easy to remember.

  • Joanie

    Having lost 80% of my backup discs due to a storage locker auction, I have to say I’m really REALLY dreading finding the images on them somewhere on the web. Thankfully I have everything backed up on external hard drives, but knowing they’re out there in the hands of some unknown entity drives me crazy at times. Had I even considered the idea that I wouldn’t be able to get to the unit in time to rescue everything, I wouldn’t have left them there.

    ALWAYS KEEP YOUR BACKUPS WITH YOU!

  • https://www.facebook.com/pages/Life-at-1500/225176137561979 robert heness

    Question why are you throwing away your images I keep all of mine once one hard drive is full I will buy another

  • charlie

    2 to 3 seconds in a microwave will give you a pretty, non-readable CD or DVD.

Some older comments

  • charlie

    September 26, 2013 09:16 pm

    2 to 3 seconds in a microwave will give you a pretty, non-readable CD or DVD.

  • robert heness

    September 25, 2013 10:29 pm

    Question why are you throwing away your images I keep all of mine once one hard drive is full I will buy another

  • Joanie

    September 20, 2013 07:40 pm

    Having lost 80% of my backup discs due to a storage locker auction, I have to say I'm really REALLY dreading finding the images on them somewhere on the web. Thankfully I have everything backed up on external hard drives, but knowing they're out there in the hands of some unknown entity drives me crazy at times. Had I even considered the idea that I wouldn't be able to get to the unit in time to rescue everything, I wouldn't have left them there.

    ALWAYS KEEP YOUR BACKUPS WITH YOU!

  • MWRyder

    September 20, 2013 05:19 am

    A quick and simple way to destroy hard drives is to use a drill to make multiple holes in the platters. Not only will this destroy the data directly under the hole but the platters will have to be moved to another case before someone can even attempt to read the remaining data.
    I also use TrueCrypt to encrypt my backup drive. I use a portion of a song for the pass phrase so I don't have to worry about forgetting it. I added some other characters to the phrase to make it even harder to break but once I think about the phrase the added characters are easy to remember.

  • silviu

    September 18, 2013 07:54 pm

    Encrypting backups is a so-so ideea - if you loose the key / password the backups are worthless. Also encryption software might become obsolete and you might find yourself scrambling to find a way to decrypt a 10 year old backup.

    Microwaving works but the fumes are toxic.

    OTOH I keep all my old and discarded backups at a trusted relative. This way if disaster should strike and destroy all my 3 copies I'll still be able to piece something back together.

  • Adam

    September 18, 2013 05:46 am

    One forgotten suggestion: Encrypt your backup devices first. If this was done on those old backup CD's / DVD's then you might have still had controll of your data even if you forgot to break it first.

    With thoroughly breaking the device, that will offer the best combo.

  • Darren P

    September 18, 2013 05:34 am

    I simply drive a nail straight through the hard disk (and all platters) before throwing in the trash. Quicker than running any software kill. CD/DVDs are just snapped or bent in half. Try salvaging any of those!

  • Allison

    September 18, 2013 12:30 am

    Great article Jeff! I'm not a fan of cloud storage myself. I'm always concerned about the security with cloud storage and technology in general. I do however treat all data discs equally and shred them whether financial or otherwise.

  • Jeff Guyer

    September 18, 2013 12:12 am

    Kevin-- They are not the same image. I simply used two images from the same backup to illustrate the point.

  • Jeff Guyer

    September 18, 2013 12:10 am

    I completely agree, Pete. While I use cloud storage for temporary backups and delivering images to clients, I would never rely on it for any kind of secure, permanent backup. I sleep much better at night knowing there is an off-site physical backup.

  • Pete Zerria

    September 17, 2013 11:14 pm

    Destroying discarded media is important in this day and age and I totally agree with your advice but we all need to think twice before porting data, any data to Cloud storage. There are documented cases of stolen data and ideas from this type of storage. In short, regardless of robust encryption and secure passwords -- if one’s property is out of one’s direct possession and control it is not secure.

    Pete Zerria

  • Kevin Farlon

    September 17, 2013 10:41 pm

    Good content in your article. I'm unclear though if you're trying to illustrate that both images are the same, and the second image is one that someone found, processed, and then passed it off as their own. If that is the case, I'm actually pretty sure the 2 images you have provided are not the same. The perspective is a little different, look at the metal column on the bridge how it leans different, the clouds are completely different, etc. Also, in the bottom image, you can tell that the photographer shot it further to the right and further up as more of the sidewalk to the left of the bridge is visible, something like this just can't be photoshopped if I had to guess. Also, the bend in the metal fencing to the left is completely different in both images.

  • Mridula

    September 17, 2013 08:46 pm

    The idea never ever even occurred to me!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • mr.jade

    September 17, 2013 07:43 pm

    I'll like the idea of a putting hard drive platters in the microwave. this is what happens when you put a device with circuitry, metallic parts and plastics. found this on youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5vOHwRZjXE

    reformatting your hard drive is one option, removing the partition via the BIOS settings and there are softwares out there that can wipe your whole hard drive clean.

    if you want to to destroy your backup Data CD's or DVD's then cut them into pieces or burn them.

    if you are really serious about wiping your hard drive clean then try running a large magnet around your hard drive platters or a hard drive degausser to alter the magnetic charge on a hard drive platter. hard drive degaussers are great because they don't just remove your data but also wipes the firmware or software that makes the hard drive work.

  • Jacob

    September 17, 2013 10:48 am

    @Klaus: I've never tried that! My guess is that it wouldn't work very well because hard drive platters are made of stronger stuff than the thin coating that holds the data on a CD-R. Worth a shot, though. Anyone have experience with putting hard drive platters in the microwave?

  • klaus

    September 17, 2013 09:37 am

    Can't you put a hard drive in the microwave, too?

  • Jacob

    September 17, 2013 09:27 am

    A cross-cut shredder that can handle credit cards and DVDs/CDs is a must-have for everyone. They're not that expensive, and they more than pay for themselves if you think of how much identity theft will cost you.

    A fun trick with CD-Rs/DVD-Rs is to throw them in the microwave for a few seconds. It creates an awesome light show, and will destroy any data to the point that it would be cost-prohibitive to recover and repair it. Just make sure you do this with a microwave you don't care about destroying :-).

    Hard drives are another concern, and can be more time consuming to destroy. I typically zero mine out if they are still operational. After that, (or if they're not operational anymore) i disassemble them, run strong magnets over the disks, and scratch the heck out of them on the driveway or something. Again, someone might be able to recover some data from them, but it would cost them thousands of dollars to send them to a specialist.

  • klaus

    September 17, 2013 09:05 am

    There are commercial disc scramblers available that can be used before discarding DVDs. It's just like a paper shredder, but it basically rearranges all the pixels. You can have your images rearranged to look like the Mona Lisa.

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