In the past, there had only been 6 shred levels, meeting different requirements for different documents and agencies.  But in 2012, a new standard of shredding was implemented, with 7 levels instead of 6.  Created by the German Deutches Institut Fur Normung, the new standard contained all levels into a single consensus (more detailed than the American standard) for multiple materials, not just paper.  This is a more specific and organized set of standards that is easier to define and implement, particularly when handling sensitive information.  For better protection and security, it is usually safer to do as much in-house data destruction as you can, instead of resorting to mobile shredding companies that can risk data.  SCIFs only use the highest level of security (P-7), but all levels are outlined for a better understanding of the new standard.

To best dispose of sensitive or confidential documents, choose the appropriate shred level to protect information and abide by HIPAA/FACTA requirements.  Each level is defined by different  maximum surface area and width.  These measurements describe varied levels of reconstructability, character distinguishability, and particle size.  The more sensitive information that is documented (personal consumer or classified information), the higher the level of shredding.  Not everyone needs a high security shredder, but there are rules to what level shredder should destroy what document.  Information safety relies on proper disposal, so getting to know each shredder level is important in knowing which shredder level is for you.

Level P-1 shreds paper into strips less than ½” in width and 6.5”² in area.  It is the lowest level of paper destruction, not ideal for highly sensitive information as it can be more easily reconstructed and characters identified than higher levels (particularly cross-cuts).  This strip cut dimension is best suited for large scale paper recycling because it reduces large paper volumes to space saving strips.  It can easily reduce mountains of paper (including newspapers and phone books) to slim strips of paper.  And because it’s only a one-cut process, a P-1 shredder works incredibly fast.

Level P-2 is defined by strip cut particles less than 6 mm in width and 800mm².  As strips get smaller, they are harder to piece back together.  The P-2 residue is smaller than P-1 residue but still relatively easier to piece back together than smaller cross-cut particles and not ideal for documents that contain any personal information.  Still, the P-2 is also an effective way to quickly shred paper to reduce paper volume, especially with its slimmer strips.

Level P-3 satisfies both HIPAA and FACTA regulations, that require doctors to dispose of old patient information using at least a level P-3 shredder (by HIPAA standards).  The P-3 produces the largest particle size that will be accepted by HIPAA.  The P-3 has particle sizes with a width less than 2mm and an area of 320mm², in both strip and cross-cut.  It is harder to reconstruct than levels P-1 and P-2 and is the recommended shredder for destroying consumer data and non classified information.

The “new” level P-4 is a newly defined level shredder that produces residue no wider than 6mm and no bigger than 160mm².  The previous level 4 (by German standards) was split, creating an extra level.  The P-4 is the most popular shredder level, creating smaller cross-cut particles than the P-3, making it even more difficult to piece back together and safer.  We predict that, should HIPAA be revised, this new level P-4 will become the new standard (replacing P-3 as the accepted level for consumer data) for its smaller particle size.  Not only is it safer than lower level shredders, the particles are also more compact, meaning the receptacle that collects the residue is filled up much slower than large strip cuts.

Level P-5 shredding (previously level 4) produces particle sizes of 30mm² with a width of 2mm.  The P-5 is normally used to destroy Personal Identifiable Information (PII) and Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI).  It is not qualified to destroy documents that contain classified information, however.  Though it is not to be used on classified documents, it is ideal for very cautious businesses.  The P-5 is can also be used to shred documents with social security numbers and similar data.  The P-5 residue is smaller than that of the P-4, but smaller particles means lower throughput, something to consider if you in high volumes.

The Level P-6 would have satisfied the old requirements for the destruction of top secret data, but now does not meet any standards.  Previously the old level 5, P-6 is neither qualified to destroy top secret data nor does it fit into NSA/EPL requirements.  Still, the P-6 residue stands in at an incredibly small 10mm² and a width of 1mm.   Instead, there are organizations that choose the P-6 for peace of mind rather than requirements.

Now, the P-7 (formerly level 6) is the most secure shredder level, has the smallest particle size (comparable to a grain of rice) and (as of now) is impossible to reconstruct. In order to stay ahead of advanced technology aimed to recover shredded information, the P-7 creates residue at a width of 1mm and a tiny area of 5mm² (half the size of a P-6)  making it the safest and only level of shredding found in SCIFs.  It is the only high security level and is the only option for classified and top secret documents that involve Communications Security (COMSEC), Secure Compartmentalized Information (SCI), and Special Access Programs (SAP).  However, only the few NSA approved (and EPL listed) shredders can be used to shred classified information.  The cross-cut dimensions are so small that P-7 blades can only handle about 10 sheets at a time, and only without staples and paperclips (that would easily break the blades).  Its sensitivity only proves how meticulously small the particles are, ensuring the highest level of security for documents.

So although most levels are designed to address specific agencies and content, there is only one high security shredder that qualifies to shred  the most classified information with no chance of reconstruction.  Based on your needs and data, it’s imperative to choose the right shredder and protect precious information.

Check out our more in depth description of levels here and search for a shredder that’s right for you here.

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