DOWN around Olympia, one can find the best bargains on computer gear at the state surplus store in Tumwater. One can get laptops for $60, monitors for $35. And sometimes, apparently, other people’s Social Security numbers for free.
A recent spot-check by the state Auditor’s Office indicated that 9 percent of surplus computers disposed by the state contained confidential information. Things like birth dates, medical records and tax information. And, in one case, naughty pictures.
There is no evidence any of that information has been misused, but the volume of obsolete computer gear disposed by state and other public agencies raises the possibility.
They discard computers by the palletful — 10,000 a year — some to schools and some to surplus sales. Hard drives are supposed to be wiped of information, but it takes more than a stroke of the delete key — restoring a data file is not hard. Most people savvy enough to shop at a computer-surplus store probably know that.
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Washington state’s record is better than other states’. State Auditor Troy Kelley was duplicating an inquiry that has been tried elsewhere. In 2009, New Jersey state officials found 79 percent of surplus computers had confidential information; in 2007 Utah found 74 percent. Kelley’s office conducted a weighted sample of the 1,200 computers that were surplused last summer. Just 11 of 177 contained confidential information.
Any number is too many. State agencies are pledging to do a better job of following their own rules: wiping data and making sure it’s gone. And they should.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).