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Artists Are Better at Deleting Data, Research Shows

University of Northern Iowa researchers found that no one really knows how to effectively delete data, aside from the liberal artist students.

When the majority of people think of data, they probably imagine vast stores of information on their computers—little nebulous files that must be cleaned up from time to time. It’s also a fair assumption that mobile device users probably think of data in terms of major service provider data plans. It’s then fairly reasonable to assume that if users don’t know how data lives, then they also don’t know how it dies. Thanks to researchers at the University of Northern Iowa, who published a study on Arxiv called “Is Your Data Gone?”, we now know that most people have no clue how to effectively delete data.

The study, led by Sarah Diesburg, an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the university, found that 60% of the thumb drives they tested still contained recoverable sensitive data. An equally interesting discovery is that art students were more likely to effectively delete data than those pursuing degrees in the humanities, business, science and engineering.

The researchers selected thumb drives for the study because of ease of use, availability for resale on the internet, and because they are treated in a less secure manner than hard drives. Deisburg and her fellow researchers obtained the thumb drives in two ways: buying second-hand drives on eBay and Amazon Marketplace (market drives), and by recruiting people 18 years or older both on and off campus who agreed to exchange their old drives for new ones (buyback drives).

The researchers found that among the buyback drive subjects, no artists left undeleted files on their thumb drives: 44.4 per cent of them ran a “quick format”, which, while better than dumping files in the trash bin, does not secure deletion; 33.3 per cent of those in the arts ran a full format, which left the thumb drive with no recoverable data. Despite this, researchers found a “general state of confusion” about the effectiveness of deletion methods.

“The study participants that identified their field of study/profession as "Arts" may not consider themselves ‘artists’,” Diesburg tells The Creators Project. “Arts can include anything under the university umbrella of ‘Liberal Arts’, which is a pretty wide area.”

Diesburg also emphasizes that only nine of the 122 participants identified in this manner. As a result, the sample size is too small to base any meaningful conclusion on the results compared to some of the other categories. But the researchers did find that an equal number of men and women surrendered drives with recoverable data. Diesburg says this was surprising because computer science and IT fields tend to be more male-dominated, and therefore it might be assumed that more men would have the technical background to wipe their drives.

“Future work must be performed to remedy the situation, perhaps by better user education, more default secure sanitization policies in operating systems, built-in device mechanisms, or some combination of these solutions,” the researchers conclude.

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