Paper will combust at temperatures greater than 177°C (350° Fahrenheit), but the data on storage media such as CDs, VHS and backup tapes is far more vulnerable to heat; it can be corrupted or destroyed when the temperature rises above 52°C (125° Fahrenheit). So, in order to protect magnetic media from theft and fire, you will need to buy one or moreIt is good practice to deploy layers of security: Always store items in a safe inside sealed waterproof containers as an extra precaution.
A fire data safe maintains a temperature of 52°C or less for a specified time period, and is suitable for any valuable plastic or man-made materials. The time it can maintain this low temperature and protect your data typically ranges from 1 to 2 hours. A fire data safe must also protect the contents from excessive moisture -- humidity levels greater than 80% can damage digital media -- and other dangers like magnetic contamination, dust and smoke, which can all potentially damage electronic media as easily as fire. (It is good practice to deploy layers of security: Always store items in a safe inside sealed waterproof containers as an extra precaution.)
There are three types of tests performed on fireproof data safes to measure their fire resistance. The fire endurance test involves exposing the locked safe to furnace temperatures while recording any rise in the internal temperature. Once cooled, the safe is examined for usability. In the explosion hazard test, the safe is suddenly exposed to superheated temperatures that could cause an explosion. The fire drop test measures the strength of the safe and its ability to withstand the effects of falling through a burning and collapsing building.
There are both European and American standards that require safes to pass this battery of tests. In the USA, Underwriters Laboratories Inc., an independent product safety certification organisation, is responsible for fire resistance standards and the actual testing of safes. For the US, electronic data storage safes should be UL class 125-rated. These keep the temperature below 52°C, humidity levels below 80%, and provide protection against weak magnetic fields.
The European attack test standard for computer media safes is EN1047, and the VdS test inspects safes for their resistance to burglary: A V0 rating offers the lowest protection and VI the highest. These standards make it much easier to compare safes and are recognised by the majority of insurance companies.
There is a bewildering array of security safes to choose from, so, in order to buy the correct safe to meet your needs, consider the following:
- How large does the safe needs to be in order to meet your needs? Pay particular attention to the internal dimensions.
- What level of fire protection can you afford?
- Do you need a safe with a "cash rating?"
The cash rating is an indication of how secure the safe is in terms of build quality, complexity of the lock and bolt mechanisms, and the level of cover that an underwriter will give to the contents. A cash rating of £1,000 means your insurance company should insure £1,000 cash or up to £10,000 worth of valuables (10x the cash rating). The rating only applies if you have installed the safe correctly and according to the manufacturer's recommendations.
If you have a specific high value item, you may be required to have a higher cash rating than the actual cost of the item. Always check with your insurance company before purchasing a safe, as individual circumstances of any particular property item can also affect coverage levels.
There are various options when it comes to the interior of your safe. It's possible to get a safe with different inner compartments, for example, to allow access to one compartment containing documents, but not to another containing cash. Deposit safes allow items to be placed in the safe without the safe being opened at all, by means of a deposit slot or tube. Strongrooms are ideal when either a standard safe is not big enough or the contents require an especially high level of security.
There is also a range of possibilities when it comes to locking the safe. There are key locks, electronic keypads requiring PIN code entry, time locks, combination locks and dual locks, which require two people present to open the safe. The easiest to open for the owner -- and a burglar -- is a key, so combination or dual locks are a better option. Like any password, the combination should be changed on a regular basis. Some models now come with a fingerprint reader, which can store a number of fingerprints as well. However, one thing to consider with fingerprint readers: Thieves have been known to cut authorised individual's fingers off in order to open the safes, so these types of biometrics may not be a more secure option.
Some safes are free-standing and are unlikely to have a cash rating, as someone could feasibly remove or steal the entire safe, so a better choice are those that can be fixed to walls, to the floor or under the floor. Be aware that, in a fire, the temperature a few feet above the floor can be dramatically higher than at floor level, so take advice from a professional locksmith about the best place to locate it. Always place safes out of general view. Finally, if you are unfortunate enough to experience a fire, your safe will no longer offer proper protection afterwards, but many have an after-a-fire replacement warranty, certainly a feature to look for.
Fire data safes are an essential safeguard, but real fires can last longer and blaze hotter than standard fire tests, so making duplicate copies of all essential documents and storing them in another location, such as a bank deposit box, is a sensible precaution. Even photocopies can at least prove that the documents -- such as deeds or design patents -- existed.
About the author:
Michael Cobb, CISSP-ISSAP, CLAS is a renowned security author with more than 15 years of experience in the IT industry. He is the founder and managing director of Cobweb Applications, a consultancy that provides data security services delivering ISO 27001 solutions. He co-authored the book IIS Security and has written numerous technical articles for leading IT publications. Cobb serves as SearchSecurity.com's contributing expert for application and platform security topics, and has been a featured guest instructor for several of SearchSecurity.com's Security School lessons.
This was first published in February 2011