Saturday, May 21, 2016

Convenience, shredding, and security

A couple of weeks ago I was walking and saw a row of blue recycling bins. The the businesses around the path I was taking are very big on recycling, so it makes sense to have many of those bins which were labelled for what they are supposed to take: normal printed paper, aluminum cans, cardboard, glass, plastic of a certain composition, and so on. On the top of the one for plain paper, I saw a bag full of shredded paper shoved into it. It did not go that far into the bin -- perhaps because it was a massive bag or perhaps the bin was full -- which made for a nice photo.

I think it is a bit of a stretch calling that shredded paper. In fact, the contents of that bag would be a great gift for a kindergarten: those kids would have fun making some fake hair using those thin strips. In this day and age, there is no place for a strip-cut paper shredder. For comparison, let's see the contents of a better, yet personal/small size, shredder:

With all of that said, sadly it is better than nothing. And nothing is still the norm. Maybe not as much in the office, satisfying some kind of requirements to do business with a government entity comes to mind, but it is the case at home. I could post some statistics here but instead let's do a little exercise:

  1. Do you shred documents and papers before throwing them out?
  2. Do your 10 closest friends or nearest neighbors (at least the ones you talk to) do it?
  3. Out of 10 business you go to, how many do shred their documents?

How many "nope"s did you get? Probably quite a few. Of those, ask for the reasons; I would expect you to get back something on the lines of:

  • It takes too much time.
  • I pay my staff to work, not to waste time!
  • Why someone would bother with a small fry like me where there are juicer targets?
  • I have nothing to hide!
  • It only happens to someone else.
  • It is too complicate.
  • It is too expensive.

What those translate to is a perception that it is not needed to shred those. Of course as soon as someone uses the improperly shredded documents to hurt a company where it matters most -- wallet -- the knee-jerk-reaction rule dictates said company will go full paranoid mode, fire a few employees, and throw a ton of money on who ever promises to sell them a magic bullet. Sounds familiar? But, it does not have to be that way.

Why to shred paper to begin with?

That's easy to answer: you shred documents when those physical documents are no longer needed but for whatever reason you do not want others to get to them. One example would be your bank statements after, say, 7 years. Other would be old credit cards and driver's licenses and anything that has your signature and personal info. Another is medical records. Criminals can use them to get lines of credit -- car loans and credit cards -- or even transfer money from your bank account.

Of course you might decide you do not want to destroy those documents before you trash them; that is up to you, but any decision you make has consequences. I will leave the moral decision to you. Remember that at least in the US, dumpster diving is legal.

Reconstructing a document from its shredded version is like working on a puzzle. You start with a bunch of pieces and then looking for patterns to help finding out where pieces go. If you find enough you can then try out the remaining pieces until they all have a place to go.

Can we make this puzzle a bit harder?

Shredding Suggestions

If I get your puzzle pieces and now add pieces about the same shape and size but from a different puzzle into the pile, and maybe take a few out, things get quite more problematic. And that can be done quite easily and cheaply if you want to put the time and accept some might think you are a bit odd. The following list are examples of how to increase randomness hopefully on a budget without being too time consuming.

  1. Do not shred documents you might still need. Information has a lifetime, which is why you employ different security procedures based on the length of time you need to keep said data protected. You only shred a document when you no longer need it. The receipt for a sandwich may not need to be kept as long as your tax supporting documents. So, it might be OK to shred the sandwich receipt a few years earlier than the tax ones.

    If others will be using the shredder, do help them understand when to shred.

    I have the utility bills from where I lived some 10 years ago. I think it is time for them to go meet Shredder-chan.

  2. Place your shredder close to where you (or your family/staff) will use. Make it convenient to use.
  3. Buy a shredder that can handle at least 20 pages and cuts them into confetti. Shredder size is determined by amount of paper you plan on shredding every day (double it to be on the safe size). Confetti is the largest size you want to cut your documents.

    If you have to choose (budget constraints) between capacity and size of the shredded paper, get the one that cuts the paper into the smallest pieces.

  4. Don't shred only important documents. Mix non confidential -- Chinese Restaurant take out menus, spam, ads from local car dealership, grocery list, homework -- stuff with the confidential documents. Yes, it takes more work, but it makes it much harder for someone to find the good stuff inside a bag of shredded documents. You are making the haystack where your needles are much larger.
  5. If you have more than one shredder in your office/home, mix their contents. This can be as simple as having one of those large blue recycling bins from the first picture and pour the contents of the different shredders into it in the end of the day.
  6. Find neighbors (home or business) who shred documents and suggest to mix all of your shredding together.. Same as the previous step, but think of it as an excuse to get to meet new people!
  7. Divide the content into smaller bags and drop them at different locations. If you only shred paper, why not take some to one of those paper recycling drop places. And maybe to a dumpster by the local Chinese fast food place we mentioned before. Or maybe see if someone wants to use it as pet bedding. Try to be as random as you can when filling the bags.

Final thoughts

If you want to shred documents, I hope this gave you ideas of how to make the shredded output more secure. Or at least got you started. I a a firm believer that just throwing money at a problem hoping to make it go away usually does not work as one expects.

So I know this shredder company. You know the kind: they come to you, get documents you put in a supposedly secure bin, and will shred your documents. One thing they are particular is that they do not want you to put pre-shredded documents in their bin. Why?