Between mobile banking, online taxes and the occasional nude selfie, digital devices are treasure troves of potentially damaging information if they end up in the wrong hands.
That's why even as recent changes making dumping certain electronics illegal has boosted the electronics recycling sector in Pennsylvania, the business of wiping consumer electronic slates clean isn't far behind as an emerging growth sector, according to local experts.
Plum-based electronics recycling company eLoop, which handled 38,000 pounds of electronic waste during its first year of operation in 2008, recycled more than 10 million pounds of waste last year -- 30 percent of which was devices such as desktops, laptops and cell phones.
Ned Eldridge, founder of eLoop, credited most of the increase to the mandatory recycling law known as the 2010 Covered Device Recycling Act, but he said there's no question that consumers are increasingly going out of their way to destroy their digital footprints.
"People are doing their due diligence by checking credit reports regularly. Now when they have to get rid of a unit that has all of their personal information but they only have so much closet space, what do they do? People will pay $10 all day long to have that peace of mind," Mr. Eldridge said.
Serdar Bankaci, founder of Greensburg-based Commonwealth Computer Recycling LLC., said customers are not only requesting to have their devices wiped clean, they want to see the process in action.
Since its 2011 opening, Commonwealth has offered on-site electronics destruction for businesses that use either a magnetic degausser, a device that uses magnetic fields to scramble hard drives, or flat out hard drive shedding.
The company also conducts data destruction during community recycling events hosted by nonprofits or schools within an 150-mile radius of Greensburg twice a weekend. In recent months, consumers attending public collection events have asked for similar results.
"More people seem concerned about destroying their data, which is a good thing," Mr. Bankaci said.
He noted that high-profile incidents such as the recent data breach at discount retailer Target that compromised as many as 70 million credit and debit card accounts during the holiday shopping season, as one reason consumers are monitoring all personal data more closely.
For Bob Johnson, CEO of Phoenix-based National Association of Information Destruction, the merits of consumer data destruction isn't spreading fast enough.
Over the past year, the organization has added enough new members who practice electronic data destruction that it added a certification program for magnetic degaussing to its list of services.
But even with state electronics laws steering consumers toward providers who offer data destruction, Mr. Johnson said the average person isn't taking advantage of the service.
In fact, he said many incorrectly assume that electronics recyclers are mandated by law to destroy data on devices even though many simply ship parts off without taking any action. He said only 29 states, excluding Pennsylvania, have laws requiring data destruction at electronics recycling centers.
Even consumers who do their homework could end up taking electronics to a facility that lacks security or isn't certified for data destruction.
"Unfortunately, there are also organizations out there in the scrap business that will tell consumers not to worry, but do they have the quality of service or security they might need? Reassurances from the service provider often isn't enough," Mr. Johnson said.
He said consumers should look for data destruction centers that are NAID members or are NAID-certified, which requires the facility to undergo regular audits to ensure security and performance standards. He also said certifications from the Better Business Bureau or local government entities lend a stamp of credibility.
ELoop, which is an NAID member, also holds membership with the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries and is certified by electronic recycling compliance programs Boulder, Colo.-based R2 Solutions and Seattle-based e-Stewards. Commonwealth Computer Recycling is certified through R2 as well and offers $25,000 and $1 million liability insurance plans to protect customers from errors and omissions.
Mr. Johnson also advised consumers to check all of their devices to see if they leave an electronic record. He noted that hard drives in DVRs record information about television viewing habits and that some printers feature hard drives that record every copy ever made.
No matter what's found on a given device, he said, clearing the data responsibly is an assignment that should be reserved for the experts.
"There are a bunch of new softwares designed to destroy data, but I don't advise consumers to try to do it themselves. Leave that to a professional."
Deborah M. Todd: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1652.