How to Securely Erase Your Old Hard Drives, Once and For All
“I have several old computers that I would like to donate to charities for schools,” one reader wrote in an email. “I erased the information on the hard disk, but I heard that simply deleting the data does not delete it completely. Can you advise how to securely erase data from a computer? »
Unfortunately, they got it right: just because you deleted a file on your computer and emptied the trash doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. Ensuring these files are properly deleted will take some extra work, but if you’re considering donating, selling, or even recycling an old computer with a hard drive in it, it’s definitely worth the time.
“There are so many stories of people buying used computers online and scavenging data,” said Andrés Arrieta, director of consumer privacy engineering at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “It’s a bit scary. It’s your whole life there.
If you really want to keep your data safe from prying eyes, here’s how to securely erase your old hard drives.
For hard drives inside a working computer
If you can actually turn on and use the computer you’re trying to get rid of, consider yourself lucky. With the right software, the process can be thankfully simple. Fortunately, in some cases, the operating system running the computer already has everything you’ll need to securely erase the hard drive.
- Click the Settings icon, then click “Change PC settings”
- Click on Update and recovery, followed by “Recovery”
- Under the title Remove everything and reinstall Windows, click “Get started”
- When prompted, select the option “Fully clean the drive”
- Click the Windows button in the lower left corner, then click the gear-shaped Settings icon
- Click on Update & Security, then “Recovery” in the sidebar
- Under “Reset this PC”, click “Get started”, then click “Remove everything”
- When you get to the “Additional settings” screen, click on “Change settings” and make sure the “Clean data” and “Delete files from all drives” options are enabled
- Click the Windows button in the toolbar, then click the gear-shaped Settings icon
- Click Windows Update. Then click on Recovery and select Reset PC option
- Choose “Delete everything” and click “Change settings” to make sure “Clean data” option is enabled
For computers running even older versions of Windows, like Windows XP, Vista, or 7, you may need to look elsewhere for the right tools. EFF also recommends using free apps such as BleachBit and DBAN to securely erase individual files and entire hard drives, respectively.
These can also be useful if you are also using newer versions of Windows. These apps are well suited for dealing with particularly sensitive data that you want to delete, or when you want more control over how your hard drive is erased and overwritten.
- Turn on (or restart) your Mac and hold down the Command and R keys while it boots up – this will put your computer into recovery mode
- Log in to your account (if necessary) and click on Disk Utility
- Select the hard drive you want to erase and click the Erase button
- Click Security Options and select the desired degree of drive erasure. Most people will have no problem selecting the second option, which overwrites all your saved data twice.
For hard drives inside a non-working computer
If one of the computers you’re looking to dispose of responsibly won’t turn on, it may be better suited for a trip to a recycling facility than an eBay buyer. But just because the thing doesn’t start doesn’t mean the personal data stored on its hard drive is already lost over time.
We’re going to have to do something about it. And the first step is to access the hard drive itself.
For those familiar with the inside of a computer – or anyone willing to poke around inside – one approach is to open up the PC and grab that hard drive. Don’t worry: quite often it’s a lot easier than it looks.
Most desktop computers can be opened quickly, and assuming there aren’t many parts in the way, disconnecting the hard drive shouldn’t involve much more than unplugging some cables and removing some hardware. ‘a support. This process can be trickier for laptops, so it’s a good idea to research a repair guide or YouTube tutorial for your specific model before jumping in.
Once you’ve successfully freed that hard drive from its metal prison, use a USB drive enclosure or docking station to physically connect it to another computer, where you can use the previously mentioned software tools to erase them from responsible manner.
If that sounds like a pain, there’s always an easy way: you can take your machine to a local repair shop where they could get that hard drive out in a matter of moments. (For all its quirks, Yelp is a useful place to start looking for these stores.) They could also probably erase it safely for you, saving you even more time.
The Office Space approach
There’s also the low-tech – and some might say more therapeutic – approach. If you can physically remove your old hard drive from a computer you’re planning to recycle anyway, take the drive out and apply a healthy dose of hammer to it. A rock from your garden would also work, as would using a drill to make four or five large holes around the center of the hard drive.
Really, go with what feels right when the name of the game does Office Space-style damage. (Don’t forget safety glasses.)
“If you were to throw it in the trash anyway, of course, pound it,” Arrieta said. “Why not have fun with it?”
Specifically, what we’re trying to do here is foul the drive platters, the spinning discs on which our data is meticulously placed magnetically. Destroying these platters won’t always make your data completely unrecoverable, but it does make the process of recovering that information more difficult than it’s worth, except in the most extreme cases. (If you’re keeping, say, government secrets, you’d probably be better off shredding the disk entirely.)
Once you’ve had your fun, though, don’t just throw that broken drive in the trash – find a local e-waste facility and dump its carcass there.