The OpSec Blog

Security and privacy information and advice at home and abroad.

The Importance of a Good Shredder

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The most important piece of equipment in your home inventory as far as protecting your identity and privacy is a good shredder.  I tell this to my family members as well as my friends like I get a commission; do not cheap out on a crappy shredder.

In order to avoid any charges that I endorse a particular product or that I’m out to profit in some way from this blog, I will not be recommending any brand or model of shredder.  I also won’t recommend a brand or model via e-mail.  Good shredders have the same things in common, and this post is meant to help you choose one for yourself.

Safety Note: Not to insult anyone, but I do feel obligated to emphasize that shredders can be very dangerous home-office equipment, especially if you have small children.  Be mindful of small fingers, pony tails, and jewelry.  In the Department there’s a story every year of someone that shreds their ID badge by accident when they lean in too far.  I wish I made this stuff up; take the appropriate countermeasures to ensure that your shredder works for you and your family instead of against.

Consumer shredders have four features that matter to you.  In no particular order of importance:

1. Price.  For the home user, diminishing returns really start to set in after $250. What you don’t want are the cheap, OfficeMax basket-top units you get on sale for $30.  They’re going to break within a week, after which you’re left with a $30 wastepaper basket.

2. Cut.  Shredders come with three main types of cuts, or shapes, that the unit’s blades will cut your sheet of paper into.  Straight cut, or strip cut shredders will turn your sheet of paper into long, thin strips.  This obviously allows for easy recreation even for an amateur identity thief.  Crosshatch shredders cut paper into smaller strips of varying size, depending on the quality of the shredder.  Crosshatching is the most common cut found in consumer shredders, and usually offers the best security for a reasonable price.  Microcut shredders offer the highest degree of security when shredding paper documents, reducing the sheet into extremely small pieces that would be almost impossible to reproduce in any reasonable amount of time.  Shredders rated to destroy classified national security information are microcut shredders that produce a specified number of pieces per sheet.

3. Capacity. This is usually expressed in two ways; how many 8.5 x 11″ sheets of paper it can handle at one time, or how long it can be expected to run continuously.  For the home user, anything over 8 pages is usually sufficient.

4. Additional features.  This is “everything extra.”  Most shredders will do credit cards and some forms of removable media.  Some have auto-reverse and anti-jamming features that may or may not work.  A lot of shredders advertise “Noise-reduction technology” or something like it, which is a complete falsehood (shredding is always noisy).  One useful feature that doesn’t get advertised much is a scattering tray that distributes shredded material evenly in your receptacle.  This is particularly good when shredding small items like sticky notes, which otherwise are deposited in a small proximity and easing reconstruction.

Why shred?

People throw out a lot of paper.  Old bills (with account numbers on it), bank statements, subscription renewals, customer copies of receipts with signatures on it (which can be scanned and reproduced), medical documents, old resumes, old passport applications, old social security cards, old credit cards (fun fact; if you get a replacement credit card the account/card number usually doesn’t change, and how many times do you have to enter the security code?), tax documents, personal correspondence, product manuals, media containing personal data, transcripts, report cards, and any number of personally identifying information (PII) that by itself may seem innocuous, but if you put it all together you can get someone’s entire life from their trash.  Shredding these documents with a good shredder makes identity theft from dumpster divers extremely difficult.

Difficulties

The world still runs on paper documents.  If you are comfortable with eBilling (offered by most telecom and utility companies) this significantly reduces the amount of paper that should be shredded.  If you’ve got a lot of paper you want to destroy, prepare to spend a long time listening to the blades grinding away (and also be prepared for an overheated shredder after about 45 minutes- give it a rest and continue the next day).  The main obstacle is routine; shredding needs to become a habit, not an exception.  Take a good look at what you’re throwing away and think about what kind of information can be gleaned from it.

Rules of Thumb

Aside from the obvious PII like social security numbers and bank accounts, I usually shred any document that has…

  • My address or phone number.
  • Names of family members.
  • Institutional/Professional affiliations (for example, Foreign Service Benefit Plan, IEEE mail)
  • Bank or credit card promotions.
  • Subscription renewals

This might sound like a lot of shredding, but once you get in the habit you really don’t think twice.  A good shredder is cheap insurance against identity theft and the ensuing headaches that come with dealing with banks, credit card companies, and credit agencies.  Consider it.

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Written by OSB

20/04/2011 at 06:40

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