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What Is Data Sanitization? How It Protects Your Organization

by Chris Brook on Thursday April 18, 2024

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Data sanitization is the irreversible and permanent elimination of sensitive data from a storage device, rendering it unrecoverable or reconstructable.

Technically, data is still important even when it has reached the end of its lifecycle. Unlike animate objects, data can still cause harm by its mere existence after its usefulness or shelf life has expired. 


Therefore, organizations don’t want sensitive customer data or those critical to their competitive advantage to fall into the wrong hands. This is why erasure methods are used to protect organizations from data they no longer use, so they can’t be recovered by the most advanced forensic equipment. 

What Is Data Sanitization?

Data sanitization is the irreversible and permanent elimination of data from a storage device, rendering it unrecoverable or reconstructable.


The process is typically carried out before disposing or repurposing a storage device to prevent unauthorized access or retrieval of sensitive data. This is crucial in ensuring data security and protecting an individual's or an organization's confidential and private information. 


Methods for data sanitization include physically destroying storage devices, erasing data, cryptographic erasure, and data masking. Data sanitization policies should align with an organization's overall information security strategy and local, national, and international data protection regulations.

Why Is Data Sanitization Important?

Data sanitization is important for several reasons:

  • Protection of Sensitive Data: Data sanitization permanently removes all information from storage devices. Without this process, sensitive data such as customer information, financial records, business plans, intellectual property, and other proprietary information can potentially be recovered and misused.
  • Regulatory Compliance: This is crucial for various sectors, with stringent data management and privacy rules, like GDPR in Europe and HIPAA in the United States. Data sanitization ensures compliance with these regulations by safely and effectively disposing of data.
  • Preventing Data Breaches: Even after files are deleted or a device is reformatted, data can often be recovered with the right skills and tools. Through data sanitization, organizations safeguard against data breaches and leaks, even if a device is lost, stolen, or improperly disposed of.
  • Optimizing Data Storage: Organizations can better manage their data storage resources by ensuring that old and obsolete data is completely removed.
  • Preserving Reputation: A data breach can result in financial penalties and can severely damage a company's reputation. Implementing proper data sanitization procedures can protect against this risk.
  • Supporting Eco-Friendly Practices: Data sanitization allows for safe reuse and recycling of electronic devices, preventing unnecessary electronic waste.

Common Methods of Data Sanitization

Data sanitization can primarily be achieved through three methods:

  • Physical Destruction: This is one of the most effective, albeit drastic, forms of data sanitization. It involves physically damaging the storage device, such as shredding or incinerating hard drives, to make data retrieval impossible. However, while efficient, physical destruction is not environmentally friendly and prevents the reuse or resale of the device.
  • Cryptographic erasure: entails encrypting code on a storage device and subsequently deleting the decryption keys, rendering the encrypted data indecipherable and unusable. Cryptographic erasure is quick and easy, but it doesn't meet some regulations for data sanitization.
  • Data Erasure: Also known as data wiping, this method involves overwriting all the data on a storage device with random sets of 0s and 1s, making the original data irretrievable. This process can be quite time-consuming but is environmentally friendly as it allows the device to be reused or resold.

In all cases, it's important to also validate and certify the data sanitization to ensure all data has been properly destroyed and can no longer be accessed.

Data Sanitization Standards You Should Adhere To

Data sanitization standards guide the process of properly erasing and disposing of data to prevent unauthorized recovery. Keep in mind that these standards function as recommendations, and the necessity for a blend of methods depends on the data's sensitivity and the storage media's characteristics.

Below are some of the commonly employed standards:

  • NIST SP 800-88: Developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, this guideline provides organizations with a comprehensive guide for media sanitization, including data erasure, degaussing, and physical destruction of various types of media.
  • DoD 5220.22-M: This method was originally created by the Department of Defense and involves overwriting data with three passes: first with zeros, then with ones, and finally with random characters. However, the DoD no longer recommends this method.
  • ISO/IEC 27040: This standard from the International Organization for Standardization focuses on data storage security and provides guidance on the secure deletion of data, specifically from digital storage devices.
  • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA): While not a data sanitization standard per se, the HIPAA requires healthcare organizations to have proper data destruction processes in place to protect patients' personal health information.
  • General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR): Under this regulation, companies are required to completely erase personal data when it is no longer necessary for the purpose it was collected, ensuring a high standard of data sanitization.
  • PCI DSS: The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard requires companies to render cardholder data unreadable both during and after storage with proper sanitization methods.
  • HMG Infosec Standard 5: The UK Government's standard outlines procedures for secure sanitization of confidential information.

The Benefits of Data Sanitization

  • Enhanced Data Security: Proper data sanitization eliminates the risk of confidential information being accessed by unauthorized individuals, thereby reducing the chance of data breaches and intellectual property theft.
  • Regulatory Compliance: Data sanitization helps businesses comply with privacy laws and regulations, such as GDPR, HIPAA, and CCPA, which require secure disposal of sensitive data to protect consumer privacy.
  • Prevent Unauthorized Data Recovery: When data is merely deleted or formatted, remnants of information can still remain on the drive, which can potentially be recovered. Effective data sanitization ensures no residual data can be recovered.
  • Safeguard Company Reputation: In the event of a data breach, a company's reputation can be severely damaged; secure data sanitization practices can safeguard a company's reputation by ensuring sensitive data doesn't fall into the wrong hands.
  • Environmental Sustainability: Data sanitization, especially digital wiping, allows for devices to be safely reused or repurposed, thereby reducing e-waste and promoting environmental sustainability.
  • Mitigation of Legal Risks: Proper data sanitization practices can help avoid potential legal ramifications associated with the mismanagement of sensitive data.

The key to overcoming data sanitization challenges lies in creating comprehensive policies and procedures, ensuring they are understood and followed by all individuals in the organization, and routinely checking the procedures for improvements and compliance with changing regulations.

What Are The Best Practices For Data Sanitization?

  • Define Policies and Procedures: Develop well-defined, organization-wide policies and procedures for data sanitization. These should encompass considerations for all types of data storage devices and outline sanitization protocols for each case.
  • Know the Data: Understanding what data you are dealing with (sensitive or non-sensitive) is important to define the correct sanitization method.
  • Classification of Data: Divide the data into various categories based on their level of sensitivity or importance. This thorough classification will assist in applying appropriate sanitization techniques to different data types.
  • Risk-Based Approach: Adopt a risk-based approach in determining the suitable sanitization methodology, i.e., high-risk data may require a different degree of sanitization compared to low-risk data.
  • Use Proven Tools: Use industry-accepted data sanitization tools and techniques. This helps ensure data is properly destroyed and irrecoverable.
  • Verification: Validating the effectiveness of data sanitization is key. Inspect the data storage medium to ensure no data is recoverable.
  • Documentation: Create and maintain records of all sanitization activities. These records should detail the device, the data it contained, the sanitization method used, the date of sanitization, and verification statements.
  • Regular Training: Provide regular training to employees about the importance of data sanitization and the practices you have in place. This helps ensure that all staff members understand and consistently follow the protocols.
  • Destruction of Media: If data sanitization isn't feasible or applicable, consider the physical destruction of the storage media.
  • Compliance with Regulations: Adhere to data privacy and protection regulations at both national and international levels by ensuring that your sanitization methods align with these standards.
  • Third-party Services: If you're outsourcing data sanitization, make sure you choose a vendor that complies with all the necessary regulations and can provide adequate documentation confirming that sanitization was completed correctly.

Tags:  Data Security Data Protection

Chris Brook

Chris Brook

Chris Brook is the editor of Digital Guardian’s Data Insider blog. He is a cybersecurity writer with nearly 15 years of experience reporting and writing about information security, attending infosec conferences like Black Hat and RSA, and interviewing hackers and security researchers. Prior to joining Digital Guardian–acquired by Fortra in 2021–he helped launch Threatpost, an independent news site that was a leading source of information about IT and business security for hundreds of thousands of professionals worldwide.

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