Dumpster Diving…A Treasure Trove

Valuable Open Source information is thrown away every day, waiting to be collected by the thoughtful researcher. Dubbed “dumpster diving,” or “trash picking” a wastebasket becomes a friend to researchers and a foe of anyone you are collecting on. Few people outside the investigative community give much thought to what they are throwing away. Even companies that try to recycle often do it for economic reasons – paper, metal and plastic may bring back money – or for social reasons other than security. Because it can be financially remunerative many people who are looking for a cash turnaround rather than information engage in dumpster diving. Occasionally their efforts turn up in media reports when something that probably should not have been thrown away is found. Protection against dumpster divers of any sort is a major security measure – one that is often overlooked.

How useful dumpster diving is can be readily seen by the fact that a highly-placed US intelligence official was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for working with Moscow operatives. He had thoughtlessly thrown away key clues to his betrayal, not thinking they would end up on a prosecutor’s desk. Expecting anything to be buried forever in a trash heap can be a major mistake.

In the United States the Supreme Court has said that, as a general rule, things left in trash cans curbside are considered “abandoned” and are there for the taking. Municipal ordinances, often designed to assure recycling is economically viable to the city, may alter the legal landscape. Dumpster diving is illegal in some locations, but where it is lawful it is a way to get critical information

Trash cans, dumpsters, recycling bins, and even members of the nightly cleaning crew can help researchers piece together inside information. Recycling containers are often sought out, not only because they don’t contain old banana peels and coffee-impregnated paper cups, but because that is where people trash their notes, their drafts, and the information miscellany that will tell more about an operation than an inside snitch. People may shred things, but many rely on shredders that cut pages into thin strips that can be readily pasted back together instead of the confetti size squares that would make ticker-tape parade snow. Cross-cut shredders are an investment that makes dumpster diving less useful for research. Some of the best shredders will take care of CDs and credit cards. Hard drives and thumb drives require special erasure and disposal techniques.

While a single letter, paper, document, or even a slip of paper with a phone number may seem insignificant at first glance, when combined with other knowledge a piece of trash may provide crucial clues. Moreover, many things that Personally Identifiable Information (PII) including Social Security numbers, make their way to the trashcan.

Dumpster diving – also called trash picking – is safest when people wear long sleeve shirts, jeans, heavy leather gloves, and leather boots because people do throw away sharp and dangerous items.

From a self-protection standpoint, remember that trash containing sensitive information may be intercepted at many points – while the material is at your location, in transit, or even at the dump or recycling facility. Open recycling bins and trash cans are not safe storage for sensitive items on their way to the dump or recycle site. Threats from loose paperwork are almost too many and diverse to mention. However organizations seldom want to make a plethora of things available to snoopers. Key items include:

  • Attendance records
  • Correspondence
  • Coursework or information about training, marketing or sales
  • Credit card information, including offers
  • Customer or order information
  • Delivery and deliverable information
  • Development plans for future projects
  • Digital media such as floppy or CD disks
  • Emails
  • Employment data
  • Financial records of any type
  • Insurance information
  • Internal notes and memoranda
  • Maintenance records
  • Medical files or information
  • Payroll Information
  • Personal notes
  • Price lists or invoices
  • Reports
  • Rosters or phone tree information
  • Schedules
  • Shipping or other labels
  • Supplier data
  • Travel information

Copyright Mark Monday 2018 Text from the next edition of What You Don’t Know…

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