It's time for spring cleaning and you finally want to get rid of that old computer that's been gathering dust for so long. What will you do with the old one? You can't just give it away or sell it. There are thieves who specialize in buying used computers on eBay just to search them for private or financial information before reselling them.
Even if you remembered to delete your files, the data is not really gone yet. (When you delete a file in Windows, all that really happens is that the file information is removed from the computer's "table-of-contents". The data is still on the hard-drive and will stay there until Windows decides that it needs to overwrite that particular space with a new file. That can take months or years.) Even re-formatting the hard-drive does not sufficiently wipe the data. You might hide it from a casual hacker that way but a determined attacker using the latest techniques will be able to reconstruct your hidden information. Read this PC World article for more.
You also can't just put the old hardware out on the curb with the weekly trash. Even if it doesn't get taken from your trash by some passerby, there are hazardous materials within most of the devices that should be properly disposed of. Here are some steps you should take:
- Make a couple of backup copies of important data and programs by writing the files to CDs.
- Use one of the free or relatively inexpensive software programs available that will write over the data on the hard drive. This ensures that no one will be able to access your personal information later even if they try to use data-restoration software. Click here for a review of several common programs.
- If you can, donate or recycle the equipment. Computer manufacturers often have suggestions on their websites (see for example, Dell or HP) and may even offer free pick-up and will work with local agencies in order to donate or recycle the equipment. You can also look for local donation sites at websites such as Earth 911. Finally, many counties offer computer hardware drop-off locations at their hazardous waste collection and recycling sites (e.g., Medina, and Summit counties) .
Note: Several donation programs ask that you not delete the operating system or software from your computer, arguing that schools can't afford to replace the software. This is in general untrue. Most schools, like most corporations, buy "site licenses" and can reinstall the operating system at a fixed, discounted rate. If you do want to donate the software along with the hardware, give them the original installation disks and let them install the software themselves. Always wipe the drive before you donate it.