Stacks on Stacks…of Floppy Disks

There is an episode of White Collar called Uncontrolled Variables where a company uses 8-inch floppy disks to store and secure sensitive information. The premise is that the 8-inch storage medium and file formats are so old and obsolete that no one would be able to access the contents of the disk. While it makes for an entertaining episode, I wouldn’t use this method to secure my information.

Meanwhile, back in real life, I found stacks of 3½-inch floppy disks sitting in a box untouched for 20 years. The labels had been crossed off and rewritten multiple times over the years. Do I really want what’s on a disk labeled “MS-DOS 6.0 Backup 7 of 16”? I couldn’t trust the labels and I was concerned that the contents may include information that remains sensitive over long periods of time such as personally identifiable information.

No big deal, right? I’ll pop the disks into my computer’s disk drive and start reviewing. Oh — I didn’t put a floppy drive in my machine when I built it. I’ll try the laptop. No floppy drive there either. Hmm… Maybe I’ll use the disks to play dominoes. (If you’re wondering, I tried and I couldn’t get them to stand upright on their own.) Luckily, 3½-inch floppy disk readers are still readily available online and at a reasonable cost. I ordered one of these drives and, when it arrived, I went to work attempting to read the disks.

3½-inch Floppy Disks
3½-inch Floppy Disks

While the initial problem was solved, a new problem emerged. I realized immediately that most files on the disks were 20 to 25 years old (obviously since the disks hadn’t been touched in that long). The second observation was that a surprisingly large number of files could be stored on a single disk with a mere 1.44 megabyte capacity. Through another stroke of luck, most of the files were in a version of the WordPerfect file format readable in Microsoft Word. With other files, I had to look at the binary and do a little research to identify the format. In many cases, these files were also saved without file extensions or the extensions were nonsense. In the end, I was able to find utilities online to read and convert to more current formats. I was also amazed that most of the disks were still readable. Only a few disks had issues where I couldn’t access all of the files.

Given this experience, I certainly wouldn’t use 3½-inch disks as an information security solution proposed in White Collar. It’s still too easily accessed to provide the level of obstacle. Maybe 8-inch disks are better, but I’ll stick with physically secured offline encrypted drives.