Throwing out your old PC? Remove personal information from your computer first

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Throwing out your old PC? Remove personal information from your computer first

The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has posted results of a study that have revealed 11% of second-hand hard drives contain personal information, including bank details and statements, tax information and photographs. That’s the equivalent of one hard drive in every ten being thrown out where the original owner did not remove personal information first. NCC Group conducted the ICO’s investigation and purchased 200 hard drives and 20 USB sticks from second-hand web sites, such as eBay. Their results concluded that only 38% of these data devices had actually been erased. What might you be giving away with your devices?

In one instance, Naked Security from Sophos, identified a hard drive purchased on eBay for £35 and was found to contain names, addresses, phone numbers, bank account numbers, sort codes, credit card numbers, mothers’ maiden names and even signatures of customers of American Express, NatWest and Royal Bank of Scotland! These data leaks might not necessarily be at the fault of any of these companies as they may have entrusted a third party to dispose of the sensitive data for them. However, how many home users actually give consideration to the data on their hard disk before disposing of their old equipment?

Unfortunately, simply deleting files from your computer, or even formatting your hard drive before you dispose of it, does not mean your data has actually been erased. Programs that are available to download for free from the Internet can recover data that you might consider to be deleted. This is because the segment of the disk where the data is actually stored has not been overwritten or encrypted.

How to remove personal information

One method to prevent your old hard disk from having its data recovered is to destroy the device. You could have fun doing this too and I’m told it can also serve as a good stress-relief. However, please consider the environment before you take the hammer to your old hard drive, as well as your health and safety, from fragmented particles! Some data devices might also include an option to restore the device to its factory settings. Options like this can be effective, however it does mean putting your faith in the manufacturer to have provided a secure erase during the reset process. You could send your old devices to a specialist company that will take care of erasing the data for you and disposing of your device safely but again, you are putting your faith in another individual to handle your information.

You might take an interest in an application called dban. It’s available to download for free from here. It’s user interface isn’t the friendliest or the most appealing but you can take assurance that it will erase and overwrite your data, securely wiping your hard disk. The downside is it can take a long time depending on the size of your hard drive. Although, with your data securely erased, you can then sell your second-hand device comfortable in the knowledge that you’ve removed your personal information.

So, before you next dispose of your old computer or data storage device, what else might you unknowingly be giving away? Could it raise the question that second-hand hard drives are potentially more valuable than new ones?

More information

For further information, see the ICO’s advice to remove personal information from your old device.

Update: Readers from Glasgow can have their computers or data drives disposed of for free by Disk Demolition. Visit their web site for further information!