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Technology / Business technology

Securely erasing old computers and devices

Don’t sell or dispose of an old computer or device without reading this first.

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The thing that most concerns small business owners about data is whether or not it’s safely backed up. But another very important issue they should be aware of is how securely their business information is erased when selling or throwing out an old device.

As the lifecycle of our technology gets shorter the need to securely dispose of things that store our personal, private, valuable and compromising data increases.

If you aren’t careful then it is easy to let the most valuable and private information slip into the hands of, well, anyone.

Interestingly, the technologies that help you retrieve that file you desperately need when your computer crashes are the same ones that can be used to recover your files when you give the computer to someone else.

Some people believe smashing their old computer with a hammer is the safest way to destroy old files, but it’s far from effective. Hammering your computer into a non-functional state may not necessarily destroy the hard drive and, even if it does, data can still in some circumstances be recovered from damaged computers.

"Some people believe smashing their old computer with a hammer is the safest way to destroy old files, but it’s far from effective. "

The best way to securely erase your computer is to do it while it is still functioning and under your control.

“Secure erasing” software is fairly easy to come by in the freeware arena.

The ones I use most often are Eraser and Ccleaner (which includes a “Drive Wiper” function as part of its extensive tool set). These are Windows-based tools.

In the Apple world, Mac OS has secure erasing built in, depending on which version you have.

These tools work by overwriting “empty space” and selected files with useless random information. This means that when someone tries to recover the files all they get is rubbish.

The tools will work on pretty much any drive, USB thumb drive, or external hard disk you can plug into your computer.

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You do need to know a few caveats though:

1)     If there’s anything you want from the drive/computer then back it up before you start. Seriously.

2)     Securely erasing a drive can take a very, very long time.

3)     You need to check just what is being securely erased and that it corresponds with what you need protected. For example, if you are erasing “blank space” your files should already have been manually deleted and removed from your recycle bin.

4)     If you make a mistake you could kill the whole system as well as erasing data (though you may want to do that intentionally).

5)     There are various degrees of secure erasing depending on how hard you need the recovery of the data to be. Some clever folks can get past single and even multiple overwrites if they really want to.

6)     Some devices, such as Solid State Drives (SSDs), have built-in electronics that can confuse secure erasers and prevent them from doing their job. Things may look okay to you, but bits and pieces get left around the place without your knowledge.

The important thing to take from this is that secure erasing needs to happen before you give away or sell any old computer.

If your computer gets into the wrong hands, there are ways to remotely erase it; the limits to this are that the computer has to receive your erase command and the bad guy has to not notice the erasure taking place. It’s still worth having this capability in your toolbox though.

No matter how long you try to hang onto an old computer, sooner or later you’ll want to get rid of it and you’ll have to address this issue.

Sledgehammer, anyone?

Have you considered the need to securely erase the data from your computer?

Share your experience below.

David Moore

is the owner of I Hate My PC. He helps people make computers work for them instead of the other way round.

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