How To Properly Dispose of that Old Hard Drive


March 17th, 2010       Author: Chris Sully

That old computer has made it’s final stand.  You’ve tried everything to speed it up and exhausted yourself in the process.  The day has come to upgrade to a shiny, new PC with all of the bells-n-whistles that will (hopefully) keep you chugging along the information super highway for the next few years.  When you get that new desktop/laptop computer up and running and transfer all of your data over, you’ll have another big decision to make… What do you do with your old computer?

A quick search of the internet will provide you with tens, maybe even hundreds, of ideas for re-purposing an old PC, but time, space and/or a limited budget will lead most to the final decision of trashing that old PC.  If you’ve come to this decision, then you have most likely asked yourself (and others) “what should I do with the hard drive?”  No doubt you have heard the horror stories and rumors of information stolen from discarded drives and are aware of the potential dangers of simply tossing that hard drive out on the curb.  Just in case you haven’t, you should know that throwing an old drive out is the equivalent of tossing out your wallet, with all of your credit cards and ID still in it.

There are hundreds of articles on discarding old drives, including a recent article on Gizmodo.com, titled Leave No Trace: How to Completely Erase Your Hard Drives, SSDs and Thumb Drives, that prompted me to write this post.  The only problem is, these fact-filled step-by-step blog posts and web sites can get a little overwhelming.  The main thing that any PC user needs to know is erasing your files does not mean they are gone forever! Long story short, unless you take extra measures to protect your personal information, anyone with access to your drive and basic computer skills could recover the data you thought you erased.

Hard Drive Wiping Options

  • Destruction - If you are never going to use the drive again and simply don’t want to invest any time, a hammer can be your best tool.  Smash that drive into a thousand pieces and toss them out with the trash.  No need for chemicals, heat or microwaves.  Those methods can be dangerous if you are not extremely careful.  For the hammer method, I would just advise that you use safety goggles.
  • Zero-Fill – In this method, you use a hard disk utility software from your drive vendor to overwrite all of the data on your drive with zeros.  The software is often FREE and the process just requires an investment of your time.  The bonus to this is you can now use that old drive as a backup device or external hard drive.  The article on Gizmodo.com or a quick Google search for “zero fill” will lead you to the software needed.
  • Secure Wiping – This method provides even more security than zero-fill.  Again, software is used to overwrite data, but multiple passes are made using special numeric patterns.  This process will require several hours of your time but will leave you with a fresh drive that can be re-purposed.
  • Other Software – There are numerous other software titles that promise to erase data quickly and easily.  In the even that you do use one of these programs, it is best to test your drive after the process, to make sure that your data is not recoverable.  There are several data recovery programs that can evaluate the effectiveness of the wipe.

Other Data Storage Devices

With so many options for storing/transferring data available today, and new options coming to market constantly, you will have to be careful about wiping your data.  The methods mentioned above will effectively remove data from a hard drive, but jump drives, SSDs, flash cards, etc. might call for a different approach.  Research the recommended methods for your device before tossing it or handing it off to a friend or family member.  You just never know who might end up with access to your old information.

Trust Yourself

As Dr. Gregory House puts it “everyone lies.”  When it comes to your personal information and the very real possibility of identity theft you should not trust anyone, other than yourself.  Do NOT leave your data in the hands of a computer repair shop, big-box store Geek or family friend who promises to erase your data for you.  You wouldn’t hand them your wallet (with everything still inside) and just “hope for the best,” so don’t hand them your hard drive either.


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  • Josh
    Great article but you need some clarification. Not all computer stores want to steal someones data. I work for a repair shop and when someones wants their data erased, that's what we do. But, we don't use the free versions unless the customer doesn't have too much stuff to worry about. For more worried customers and businesses, we actually use a program that will do multiple passes and has several different standards to choose from.
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