Securely Dispose of Old Computers and Mobile Devices

First, consider how often Apple releases a new iPhone:

  • iPhone (June 2007)
  • iPhone 3 (July 2008)
  • iPhone 3GS (June 2009)
  • iPhone 4 (June 2010)
  • iPhone 4S (October 2011)
  • iPhone 5 (September 2012)
  • iPhone 5s (September 2013)

That’s right. Apple releases a new iPhone EVERY YEAR. With our addiction to all things technological, chances are that you’ve got AT LEAST one older device (smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop) lying around your house, just waiting to be gifted or sold.

The big question is: How can we securely delete all of our personal data from these devices before getting rid of them?

Well, you’ve got one option that work for mobile devices, desktops, and laptops:

  • Physically destroy the device / hard drive. Let’s face it: this solution kills the resale value, but it’s an almost surefire way to ensure that no one is getting any data off of your old device. Device + hammer = unrecoverable data.

If that option’s off the table, you’ve got another option unique to mobile devices:

  • Reset the device to factory settings. The process varies from device to device, but start in the Settings and look for Reset or something similar. If you get stuck, you can always Google it.

If we’re talking desktops and laptops only, here are a few options that come with automated tools to make the process easier:

  • Use Darik’s Boot and Nuke (DBAN). Chances are the geeks in your family already know about DBAN. Just put DBAN on a thumb drive or a CD and then boot from that media. DBAN’s simple menu-driven options will walk you through totally obliterating the data on the hard drive while leaving the hard drive intact. No hammers.
  • Encrypt your sensitive data. I looooooooove TrueCrypt. It lets you either encrypt your entire hard drive, or just create an encrypted “container” for you to keep your files in. From a user perspective, the encrypted container looks and acts just like another hard drive. This second option is a great proactive way to protect your data, regardless of when you plan on getting rid of your computer. As long as you choose a secure password (or passphrase) when creating the container, you don’t have to worry (much) about someone getting to the data inside that container, even if you forget to delete the container before you part with your computer.
  • Manually delete the data. Sometimes, though, you want to leave the operating system intact (especially if sending the computer to a family member or friend). If this is the case, you can start by uninstalling all the programs on your computer that you don’t want the new owner to have. Maybe you leave MS Office in place, but you remove Quicken and TurboTax. Once you’ve deleted these programs, install and run CCleaner. CCleaner targets temp files and app data that you didn’t even know existed and wipes it from your hard drive. (If you’re a Mac user, check out OnyX as well.)

Manually deleting the data is tricky, so I’d recommend you reach out to a geeky family member or friend to help out. Dropbox, for example, will uninstall just fine, but that doesn’t mean it will delete all of the Dropbox files stored locally on your computer. Same goes for Google Drive. And don’t even get me started on iTunes backups. Those files are a treasure trove of personal information.

A couple of quick notes on using CCleaner:

  • Under Options > Settings, make sure you enable Secure Deletion. The US Department of Defense spec is Advanced Overwrite (3 passes), and chances are the DoD has more sensitive data on their systems than you have on your home computer.
  • Under Tools > Drive Wiper, set security to Advanced Overwrite (3 passes) and wipe Free Space Only. This will delete any file remnants on your hard drive that were there before you read this blog. (And yes, you can use CCleaner to wipe your entire drive, similar to DBAN.)

One last note: recycle your old tech! Google for local technology recycling centers, or better yet, take some old tech to your kids’ school for a “Take Apart Day.” They’re a blast. Trust me on that one.


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