Shredder cleans out Win95 desktops

After staking out a hard line against the government awarding contracts to itself, cooler heads seem to be prevailing on Capitol Hill.

Think you have deleted those confidential letters, presentations or spreadsheets from your PC? Think again. Unless you have used a special utility such as Strategic Forecasting LLC's (Stratfor) new Shredder for Windows 95, your documents probably can be retrieved by anyone with access to your computer.

In many cases, data you think you have erased— or did not realize you stored on your hard disk in the first place— can be recovered. The Unerase program, found on the Emergency disk that comes with Symantec Corp.'s Norton Utilities, can quickly recover files you have deleted from your hard disk or floppy disks. Your Windows swap file, which provides temporary data storage, may retain copies of secret passwords and critical data. In addition, your Internet browser's cache and history files paint a vivid picture of your World Wide Web browsing habits.

Enter Stratfor's Shredder, which works in the background to overwrite multiple times, or "scribble," what you have deleted until it is virtually impossible to recover. In our tests, Shredder stumped Norton Utilities for Windows, making unrecoverable every file we deleted from Windows Explorer or a Windows application.

Automatic scribbling is especially useful on laptops, which are prime targets for thieves. So we tested Shredder on an IBM Corp. 760E notebook computer. The program performed admirably and did not have a noticeable impact on system performance. However, Web browsing proved to be slower because Shredder was scribbling deleted cache files continuously. The documentation, while easy to understand, was virtually unnecessary thanks to the product's verbose dialog boxes.

We found only a few chinks in Shredder's armor. During installation, the program asked if we would like to "flush" our disks by scribbling all previously deleted files. However, when we selected several drive partitions and told the program to go ahead, we saw no disk activity. Instead, Shredder stopped responding altogether. Killing the program manually left no free space on some drives and large numbers of "lost" clusters on others. Manufacturer Stratfor was at a loss to explain why this happened.

We also discovered that while Shredder does a good job of cleaning up Internet cache and history files, it does not automatically find and delete the log files of Windows' built-in terminal program or the free upgrade that works over the Internet or through a modem. As a result, logs of modem and Telnet sessions must be deleted by hand.

Shredder's protection also does not extend to files deleted from within applications that run in Windows' MS-DOS mode. These include many multimedia games, programming tools—- such as Turbo Pascal and Borland Pascal— and legacy DOS programs that require "DOS extenders" to run. Unfortunately, because so many agencies depend on DOS applications and legacy code, Shredder would be much safer if it also worked in MS-DOS 7.0—- the version on which Windows 95 is built.

Shredder, like any other utility of its kind, also cannot scribble deleted records within database files. To be fair, this task is impossible without knowing the format of the files. But it would be helpful if the vendor informed users of this limitation. Users should not be lulled into believing that Shredder will protect them if they delete notes within, for example, Polaris Inc.'s PackRat personal information manager.

One feature that raised a few eyebrows was the Panic System, which is a special key combination that instantly decimates sensitive files. While this feature might be handy for embassy staffs in hostile countries, it is not of much use unless you are expecting a sudden invasion of your office. But it may mean that law enforcement officials need to conduct more "no-knock'' searches to ensure that data is not destroyed if a more polite entrance is used.

Shredder, which was recently added to BTG Inc.'s Integration for Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence contract, sells for $78. For more information, call (800) 690-IC4I, or point your browser to www.shredder.com.

Glass is a reviewer based in Laramie, Wyo.

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