Should I really burn my burner phone, and other data destruction dos and don’ts

Scenes during the Data Destruction Day held on Snell Quad on Oct. 15, 2018. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

It turns out you shouldn’t actually burn a burner phone. If you really want to cover your tracks, you should grind it up.

Good thing there’s a metal-toothed machine that can destroy your phone, or any device that holds sensitive data, for you. It was on display at Northeastern’s Data Destruction Day event on Monday, where people handed over their old laptops, desktop computers, cellphones, and floppy disks for information annihilation.  

The machine took one man’s collection of flip phones, chewed them up and spat them out, unrecognizable, and guaranteed-untraceable.

“That’s the safest way to erase information from tech devices,” said Megan Perkins, who is Northeastern’s information security manager. “If you just throw away your computer, for example, in the trash, you run the risk of people accessing whatever information is on that computer.”

The Office of Information Security hosted the event as part of cybersecurity awareness month so people could safely dispose of information stored in old technology.

The machine mangles up hardware to ensure the information is undetectable. To demonstrate, Fraiser picked up a piece of twisted metal from the bowels of the machine. It used to be a hard drive, the thing in a computer that looks like a CD and stores information. “If it can’t spin, you can’t get any information off of it,” he said. It definitely couldn’t spin.

Brian Mewhinney, a data storage expert from Congruity, recycles floppy disks during the Data Destruction Day. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

On one table, a chronicle of the telephone’s evolution awaited destruction—a beige, curly-cord landline, a pager, an old Nokia flip phone, an iPhone 4.  

One woman dropped an old iPhone while she waited in line. “Nothing as bad as what I’m going to do with it,” Fraiser joked.

One person brought in an old security camera. But wait, do those store data?

“No, but it’s just the proper way to recycle the technology. We take anything people give us and recycle it. This stuff isn’t supposed to just sit in a landfill,” Perkins said.

Professor Frances McSherry turns in computers for recycling. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University


The event also catered to the analog community. Perkins and her team brought a paper shredder.

“You’d be surprised how much paper people hoard in their offices,” Perkins said. “We brought in back-up this year just to deal with the volume of paper documents.”

It’s rare to have your information stolen from the trash, but Perkins said it’s better to be safe than sorry. So if you’d prefer to err on the side of caution, grind your phone; don’t burn it.