When to shred documents

When Hewlett-Packard's overzealous investigation into boardroom leaks hit the news last year, many people were shocked -- shocked! -- to hear that the tech giant may have hired third-party investigators to go through individuals' trash. In fact, Dumpster diving is a favorite technique of investigators, and depending on the circumstances -- such as local laws and whether trash pickup occurs on public property -- it is often legal.

All of which creates the need for employees to shred sensitive documents. Below are a few best practices you can share with colleagues.

Remember that trash is not inherently private. In 1998, the US Supreme Court ruled that Americans do not have a right to privacy when it comes to their trash. What's more, the US Economic Espionage Act of 1996, which made it a federal offence to steal trade information, does not protect companies that fail to take reasonable steps to protect their information.

Keep documents only as long as you need to, then follow the instructions for disposal. Especially in regulated industries such as health care and financial services, your company should have policies in place for how long different types of documents should be kept on hand. Be familiar with the retention policies for documents you handle, and make sure you follow the instructions for disposing of them as soon as the retention period is up.

Don't shred documents out of turn--such as when your company is about to get sued. It will make you look guilty, and the law is not in your favor.

When customer or employee information is headed for the trash, destroy it if it contains information that you would not want made public about yourself. Documents that contain names, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, account balances, health conditions or other personal information should always be shredded.

Shred trash-bound documents that could help the competition. Customer lists, sensitive pricing information, strategic planning documents and trade secrets should never just be tossed in the garbage or recycle bin.

Be especially diligent if you deal with information from consumer reports. The Fair Credit Reporting Act protects credit reports and credit scores as well as reports relating to employment background, check writing history, insurance claims, residential or tenant history, or medical history. Anyone who handles this type of information--from a large mortgage company on down to a family hiring a nanny--must follow strict disposal guidelines that may reasonably include burning, pulverizing or shredding papers so that the information cannot be read or reconstructed.

Speak up if the shredding system in your department is so onerous that people avoid it. Companies have many options for shredding documents, from a cross-cut shredder to outsourced services that will pick up locked bins of sensitive documents, shred them onsite for a fee based on quantity and provide a certificate of destruction.

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