IT SLICES, IT DICES,
IT DISINTEGRATES DIGITAL DATA
by Ross Kerber
WESTBORO, Mass. – Leonard Rosen runs a slaughterhouse for computer gear.
His firm, Security Engineered Machinery Co., is a leader among makers of devices to disintegrate and demagnetize electronic data, lest they leak valuable secrets. His latest killer app is a $5,100 declassifier, a machine about the size of a microwave oven that literally power-buffs data off CD-ROMS and turns the surface material of the disks into a fine plastic dust.
Let s see you try to reassemble that information! says Mr. Rosen after the device wipes a CD-ROM clean in 20 seconds. Nobody is going to steal that form you.
Once spies and other security-minded types just chopped sensitive papers into tiny little bits. But now that hard drives, floppy disks and memory chips arecommonplace, security experts fret that even a fragment of carelessly discarded plastic or silicon might yield many paragraphs of text or other valuable information to a competitor – military or commercial. Even burning the materials could produce ash particles stilll large enough to yield data.
Destruction standards have grown stricter as a result. U.S. spy agencies for years have required paper documents to be mulched down to fragments now wider than 1/32 of an inch before they can be considered safe for disposal. But anew standard probulgated by the U.S. National Security Agency holds that a CD-ROM can t be condisdered safely declassified until its optical-storage medium has been turned into particles about a tenth that size. That is, less than 250 microns (100 microns equals the width of one human hair).
Mr. Rosen s declassifier is among the first to meet the new NSA standard. A recent certification by the agency means that he can begin selling it to U.S. military agencies for submarines and hush-hush sites such as field headquarters.
Meanwhile, SEM already is known for its disintegrators, which dispose of everything from old circuit boards to unsold software. Using three stainless-steel blades attached to a high-speed rotor, SEM s refrigerator-size disintegrators need just an hour to chem 450 pounds of paper, books,
videotapes or what-have-you into fragments so small they are hard to pick up.
We thought we would be in trouble because of military cutbacks in the early
1990s, says Mr. Rosen. But demand is picking up from other areas of the
government and from the private sector. Everybody s got something to destroy
these days. Competitors with U.S. Treasury Department approvals to sell bank-
note shredders include Munson Mill Machinery Co. in Utica, N.Y. and Jay Bee
Manufacturing Inc. in Tyler, Texas.
Founded by Mr. Rosen and a partner in 1967, SEM got its first contract to
build high-capacity disintegrators for U.S. Navy ships that can chop up
whole codebooks in less than a minute. Demand rose after the Pueblo incident
in 1968, when North Korea officers obtained codebooks from the U.S. Navy spy
ship after crew members couldn t destroy them fast enough. Now with 40
employees, closely held SEM says it is profitable and has revenue of just
under $15 million.
Also working to SEM s advantage was another major U.S. intelligence
embarrassment — the reassembling by Iranian student radicals of sensitive
documents that had been shredded in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran prior to the
1979 takeover of the building. Wth machines like his disintegrator, says SEM
President Peter Dempsey, no such reconstruction would have been possible.
The trouble with SEM s business model to date has been that fovernment offices
typically need only shredder that lasts for life — that is why it is trying
to penetrate commercial markets and other countries.
Now, about 40% of SEM s business relates to commercial data destruction, up
from 15% in 1994. Some of its biggest customers aren t interested in secerecy
so much as ensuring that old products won t be resold via back channels.
At one facility in Hayward, Calif., a unit of Zomas Optical Media Inc uses an
SEM shredder to grind up as many as 15 tons of surplus software, audio disks
and videotapes each day. You won t find a lot of buyers for a $100 box of
software after it s been put through that machine, says Blake White, a Zomax
Other data demolitions are stealthier. SEM s $1,000 degausser wand is a
powerful magnet that quietly wipes out any flopyy disk brought within a few