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Before you donate, sell or recycle your old PC...

Posted By : Ken Colburn of Data Doctors on April 18, 2008 8:27 AM

Question

What’s the best way to get rid of my personal information before disposing of an old computer?

- Marcus

Answer

This question was answered on April 18, 2008. Much of the information contained herein may have changed since posting.

When it comes to disposing of an old computer, whether you are selling, donating or recycling it, you’re biggest concern should be your personal information. Identity theft through electronic means has become such a focus of cyber-criminals that disposing of your old computer without taking steps to 'scrub' the personal or business data off first could be very risky.

There are several options to consider, ranging from very simple to somewhat technical, that will allow you to keep your files from being accessed by future users of your old computer.

If you’re selling your computer, you may want to maintain the software programs on the computer so that it’s more valuable for the next owner. In those cases, your best bet is to “scrub” the individual data files off the drive with a secure deletion program such as Eraser. This free utility is available for download at http://sourceforge.net/projects/eraser

The reason that you don't want to rely on the 'delete' function in your computer's operating system is because it doesn't actually remove the data! When you tell Windows to “delete” a file, it simply removes it from the view of the user and marks the space as 'free' for use by other data. If nothing ever overwrites this space (which is a completely random process), retrieving the 'deleted' files is fairly simple for a moderately technical cyber-criminal.

Eraser is much more secure then deleting through the operating system because it immediately overwrites the space previously occupied by your personal data files.

If you want to add another layer of protection, run the 'Disk Defragmenter' utility built into Windows after you use Eraser (in the 'System Tools' section of the Accessories group of your program listing).

If you don’t care about maintaining a working computer, you can wipe out the entire hard drive with a secure wipe program such as Darik's Boot and Nuke. This free utility will completely and securely wipe your entire hard disk and is available at: http://sourceforge.net/projects/dban

This is a great option for those that are only interested in donating, selling or recycling the hardware and not any software. Boot and Nuke does a much more thorough job then simply “reformatting” the hard drive with your operating system. It conforms to Department of Defense data clearing and sanitizing standards and makes it nearly impossible for anyone to get anything of value off of the drive.

This procedure is much more comprehensive but requires some technical experience (making a boot disk or bootable CD) in order to use it.

If either of those options sounds too technical, simply remove the hard drive from the system before disposing of it so you can deal with the sensitive data at a later date. Keep the drive until you can find someone that you trust to securely delete your data for you.

I often hear people say that it’s just easier to throw their old equipment in a dumpster, which is a really bad idea. Never throw an old computer away as it’s filled with hazardous waste. Recent studies claim that as much as 40 percent of the lead in our ground water is from all of the consumer electronics that have been dumped into our landfills.

If you can’t find a church, school or charitable organization that is willing to accept an old computer in your local area, check out sites like www.cristina.org, which will help match donors with organizations that can make use of older technology.

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Posted by Ken Colburn of Data Doctors on April 18, 2008

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