17 June 2012

What you must do before you give away your old computer

With the end of the financial year approaching, you may be considering taking advantage of all the specials around and upgrading your computer.  What are you going to do with the old one?  Give it to your children – great.  What about giving it to another family member, or a friend? 

What have you been using that computer for?  Have you used your browser to store passwords?  Internet banking?  There’s bound to be a lot of personal data on it, and while you might trust a family member not to use it in a malicious way; what if they then give it away to someone else?  What if you decide to sell it at a garage sale, or on eBay?

Once you have finished with a computer you need to wipe it clean of all your personal data.  That means deleting:

  • Everything in the My Documents folder.
  • All temporary Internet files.
  • All cookies.
  • All files relating to personal and financial matters that may have been stored in folders other than My Documents.
  • All email: Outlook Express users need to search for and delete .dbx files; Windows Mail users need to search for and delete .eml files; and Microsoft Outlook users need to search for and delete .pst files.
  • Remove all email account settings and passwords.
  • Empty the Recycle Bin as the last step 

But, you're not finished yet.  When you delete a file from your hard drive it’s not really deleted, only the reference to it has been removed.  It’s like you’ve removed a chapter from the Table of Contents in a book.  Even though the chapter isn’t listed in the Table of Contents, if you look through the book you’ll still find that chapter.  The files you deleted still exist on your hard disk until they’re overwritten by other files; and while it’s harder for the average person to recover them, an experienced programmer or hacker could easily locate them. 

So, the last step you need to take before you give way or sell your computer is to overwrite everything on your hard drive.  You can run hard-drive erasing software, which will overwrite any remaining information with random ones and/or zeros.  Once your data is overwritten it is much harder to recover.

Some of the free drive-wiping software available is:

Ccleaner3 - Great drive-wiper, but also has tools for optimising your Windows system.

Eraser - Deletes files permanently and overwrites it multiple times.  

Active@KillDisk - Destroys all data on hard disks, USB drives, and then overwrites the drive using zeros.

Softpedia/DP Wiper - overwrites your data using zeros from one to 35 times.

As an alternative, if you have your operating system’s installation CD you should be able to reinstall and clear your hard drive simultaneously.   This should be enough to prevent the average person from obtaining personal information from your hard drive.   Unfortunately most modern computers don’t come with operating system disks. 

If your computer is broken or you have no one to give it to, and you’re just getting rid of it – there’s another option:  Just open up the computer and remove the hard drive; Unscrew the casing, exposing the disks; then smash them to pieces!

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