Russ Harvey Consulting - Computer and Internet Services

Disposing of Old Computers Safely

Why Worry About Data? | Secure Erasure | Recycling Electronics

Safely disposing of older and unwanted computer equipment.

Options for Disposing of Older Computers

Sooner or later you're going to upgrade your computer and you'll have to decide what to do with the old one.

There are several things you can do with it, including:

  1. use it elsewhere in your home; or
  2. donate it to charity; or
  3. give it to a friend or family member; or
  4. recycle it.

You should consider all other options before recycling a computer. While recycling is better than contributing to the landfill, the process is not without its pitfalls.

ERA Supports Repurposing Before Recycling

With a focus on recovery, refurbishment and reuse, ERA continuously supplies charitable groups with donated IT equipment while securely managing the retiring IT assets of organizations and individuals across Canada. We believe that reuse before recycling is critical in managing the waste created by computer hardware, and by offering industry leading data destruction for all equipment we receive, we have securely repurposed hundreds of tons of equipment. — The Electronic Recycling Association

Getting Ready

You'll want to ensure that you have a backup of any files you want before proceeding.

Then you'll want to protect your privacy by either

  • securely wipe the hard drive(s); or
  • reinstall the computer's operating system using the option that wipes the information on the computer and reinstalls the factory settings (the way the computer was when you bought it).

Either of these options will remove all your data.

The second option will remove all programs that didn't come installed from the factory (or were trial editions). You may wish to reinstall these programs after the recovery process finishes if you're not going to be using the program on your new computer.

Why Worry About Your Computer's Data?

It is important that you protect your data and personal information.

While there may be no “top secret” data on your computer, it contains much personal information that could be detrimental, embarrassing or inconvenient if it were recovered.

Many of us consider our data basically worthless. Who'd want it?

Everyone's Collecting Data

But corporations, government, websites and social media sites are collecting all kinds of data. If it is valuable to them, it is important to protect it.

Would You Post EVERYTHING?

Look at it this way: would you print everything out and past it on a public bulletin board for anyone to see?

Of course not. We care to keep our lives private, at least to some degree.

Private Data

You'll want to ensure that the following sorts of data are destroyed before disposing of an old computer or any storage device.

  • Financial, budget and tax information.
  • Passwords, accounts information, access codes, etc.
  • Personal emails (including unsent messages and trash).
  • Personal (non-public) documents.
  • Personal photos and videos.
  • Copies or records of bills, payments and outstanding loans.

Don't forget that some of the system files contain personal data such as the AppData folders (hidden by default).

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Secure Erasure

Before disposing of a computer, you'll want to ensure that the hard drive no longer contains personal information.

Preventing Unauthorized Recovery of Your Data

Formatting the drive won't necessarily make the information unrecoverable, especially if you do a quick format. This essentially changes only the Windows flags to say that the data is gone. Think of removing just the first letter of every word in the left margin of your documents.

To be truly gone, the data on the drive has to be overwritten.

Securely Wiping Hard Drives

These are open source software solutions:

  • Darik's Boot and Nuke (DBAN) is free open-source data wiping software for personal use. DBAN doesn't work on SSDs. See also the SourceForge DBAN page.
  • Eraser is a secure data removal tool for Windows. It completely removes sensitive data from your hard drive by overwriting it several times with carefully selected patterns.

Other data-erasing products exist, but I like the fact that open source projects can be verified to have no hidden surprises.

Securely Wiping Flash Drives

These devices work differently than hard drives but you can use your computer's operating system to rid them of private information, yet retain the ability for someone else to use it. These methods will securely wipe the drive three times:

  • Windows: format X: /p:3 from the Command Prompt where X is the drive letter of the flash drive.
  • Mac: Open Disk Utility, select Erase then choose “3-pass secure erase” from the Security Options.

Hard Drive Destruction

An alternative to securely erasing your data is to have hard drives, optical media (CDs and DVDs) or removable USB devices shredded or critically damaged. This is more secure but renders the device unusable.

Physically destroying a drive that cannot be wiped:

You will need:
  • A hammer (I use my trusty 32oz "fine adjustment" hammer)
  • A thick nail (a 6-inch nail will do fine)
  • Thick gloves -- because you're going to be hammering that nail through the drive using the hammer, and hammers are magnetically attracted to thumbs
  • A block of wood -- so you don't nail the drive to your floor (it's preferable to do this outside if you can)
  • Eye protection -- you've only got a maximum of two to start with, so it's silly to take chances!
Now, you apply brute force. Ideally, you want to put a nail through the platters of the drive, going all the way through (it's actually not as hard as it sounds). I aim for the spot marked by the red XZNet

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Recycling Electronics

Secure Data Deletion

Before recycling computers, smart phones and other electronics that contain personal data you should ensure the data is securely deleted.

There is no cost for recycling old electronics in BC. The costs are paid for by an Environmental Handling Fee levied on all new electronic purchases.

Recycling Locations

The following locations will take recyclable (acceptable) electronics:

Fundraising Events

Help your community dispose of broken or obsolete electronics. Shift Recycling has an e-waste recycling fundraiser program.

Learning More

There's more information about recycling options for computers on these Victoria sites:

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Related Resources

Related resources on this site:

or check the resources index.

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Updated: November 1, 2019