Effects of the Recent NSA EPL Changes

October 17, 2019 at 8:00 am by Paul Falcone

Effects of the Recent NSA EPL Changes

Every so often, federal agencies are given new data destruction standards delivered by a mandate from the NSA’s Evaluated Product Lists (EPLs). NSA EPLs dictate how end-of-life data must be destroyed at a top secret and classified level — from paper to hard drives to key tape and more. The industry at large continues to work towards (and past) these most secure end-of-life mandates because they are updated as criminals find ways to extract data off smaller and smaller fragments of media previously thought to be impossible to reconstruct. For example, prior to November of 2018, DVDs were once considered thoroughly destroyed at a 5mm final particle size — but no longer. In fact, the new maximum final particle size for classified DVDs is 2mm, which is over 50% smaller than the previous acceptable final particle size. So as we near the end of 2019, what are the latest changes to the list and how do they affect the destruction of top secret and classified data?


Blu-ray and DVD Particle Size Changes

The biggest change on the most recent overhaul of the NSA EPLs in November 2018 was the announcement that the particle size for shredding DVDs would be changing from a 5mm particle size to a 2mm particle size. This mandate also stated that classified Blu-ray Discs (BDs) would for the first time be destroyed through shredding, whereas previously they could only be destroyed through incineration. The particle size requirement for BDs is the same as for DVDs – 2mm. The final particle size requirement for CDs remains at 5mm.

This change comes with a grace period, as the new mandate took agencies by surprise, with very few compliant machines currently available on the market. For the intelligence community, there is a three-year grace period. All other federal agencies will have six years to comply. This change also means there are no longer any NSA listed machines on the market that are able to destroy all classified optical and paper in one shredding chamber.

Changes to Throughput and Durability Tests

The NSA has also made a change in how they present information about both the throughput level of a machine and its one-hour durability test. The throughput level is no longer a specific number, but instead consists of a label of low, medium, or high volume. The one-hour durability test has been removed completely.

This change, however, comes with a caveat. The buyer should be aware that some less-than-scrupulous companies may take advantage of these more vague labels by advertising their machines with inflated throughputs. Therefore, when doing research on a data destroyer, it is imperative to look for companies with impeccable reputations and a history of honesty, as their integrity will be what ultimately dictates how they label the throughput of their machines.

Spreading the Word and Managing Budget

The difficulty with these changes is that while they ultimately keep data, and as a whole the citizens of this country, safe, it has been difficult to spread the word to every single organization that the NSA EPL ultimately affects. With top secret and classified data found in every federal agency and in a multitude of geographic locations globally, getting the news into the ears of every influencer and decision maker who handles security has proven challenging. For this reason, it is critical that commercial organizations involved in federal information security assist the government in spreading the word through their own channels such as email, blogs (like this one), trade shows, and seminars. In addition, federal employees involved with data security may find it a best practice to check the NSA’s website for EPL updates on a regularly scheduled basis.

The other challenge, shared by nearly every industry and individual in existence, is funding. As new mandates are pushed out by the NSA, agencies are often required to purchase new equipment to meet those mandates. A facility that may have had a combo shredder to destroy all of their classified paper, CDs, and DVDs would now need an entirely separate machine to securely shred their DVDs (and now Blu-ray Discs). And, at anytime in the future, that mandate could change again. It can sometimes end up feeling like a gamble, but when it comes to protecting the data and information found at the top secret level, it is imperative that federal organizations involved with secure data destruction budget for anticipated changes. These are far from the last mandates that will be released. As criminals continue to find increasingly sophisticated methodologies for extracting data, it is critical that the NSA stay one step ahead.

Staying Up to Date

Regulations will change, and then they will change again. When it comes to sensitive information and the NSA EPLs, the one constant is the criticality of protecting data when it reaches end-of-life so that America’s top secret and classified information does not fall into the wrong hands. Thanks to the NSA’s testing and EPL listings, the intelligence community and federal organizations at large can feel confident that their end-of-life information will remain confidential, providing peace of mind to our country’s agencies and citizens.