Inmates help state scrub old hard drives



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Posted on May 2, 2014 at 7:42 PM

Updated Friday, May 2 at 10:19 PM

AIRWAY HEIGHTS, Wash. — Prison inmates are one of the last lines of defense when it comes to deleting personal information off old state agency computers.

An April audit found birthdates, Social Security Numbers and other private information on an estimated nine percent of former state agency computers sold as surplus.
In some cases agencies thought they had scrubbed hard drives cleaned, but the hard drives were never checked, according to the audit.

After the release of the audit, the Office of the state’s Chief Information Officer said until a new standard can be established for scrubbing state hard drives clean, the hard drives from all retired agency computers would be sent to Airway Heights Corrections Center near Spokane.

For 10 years inmates have worked on old computers under the “Computers for Kids” program which provides recycled and rebuilt computers to schools for about $25.

The scrubbing method used at the prison is considered the most thorough.

The 10-person inmate crew is made up of minimum security offenders who have good behavior records.

”They have to show they’re on the right track for rehabilitation before they’re even considered for my program,” said supervisor Michael Whalen.

The inmates are always supervised and once they remove the hard drives from the computers, Whalen’s the only person who handles them until the information on the drives has been deleted.

”There’s absolutely no way, shape or form that any of us can bring up any information on anybody,” said Hank Alt, an inmate serving a seven-year sentence for car theft.

Alt said the program has taught him how to use his hands in a good way. He’s hoping for a career in computer programming or repair when he gets out next January.

The state is considering destroying all old hard drives as a way to protect the private information.

That would eliminate the “Computers for Kids” program.

”We are currently evaluating whether this makes sense for the state, given the value provided to Washington State public schools through the C4K program,” state CIO spokesperson Ben Vaught said in an email.

The staff and inmates at the prison said getting rid of the program would be a mistake.