Researchers from Glamorgan University's Forensic Science team have found an alarming amount of personal data left on hard drives being sold on eBay. The most worrying data found consisted of cancer patients' records from an NHS Trust.

In the joint study by BT and recycling firm Life Cycle Services (LCS), the researchers found 62 per cent of drives sold contained company records, personal information, financial data and even paedophilic content which, LCS says, has resulted in a police investigation in Wales.

Growth in personal identity theft

"Over the past three years the study has shown a slight reduction in the proportion of drives containing data," says Jon Godfrey of LCS. "But this is not the true picture. We must consider the increase both in the size of the drives and the [growth] in their use. The volume of data being leaked has increased massively.

"There is a huge growth in personal identity theft and this is one source of high quality personal data," continued Godfrey. "We have already seen discarded data turning up for sale in a street market in Nigeria which was discarded at a local household tip in Essex".

Indeed, LCS reckons that over 50 per cent of failed hard drives sent for recycling are repaired - almost all containing personal data from the previous user. The researchers from Glamorgan University found that often they had to do no more than open the drive up with a screwdriver and re-set the heads to access the data on the drive.