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Sanitizing a soon-to-be discarded computer
Toledo Blade


September 20, 2005

One of the most frequently asked questions from readers involves the best way to "sanitize" an old computer before bidding it farewell.

These readers are not concerned about other people catching germs from their keyboard or mouse. They're worried that someone may see emails, letters, financial documents, passwords and other personal information on the hard disk drive.

Before selling or discarding that old computer, stop and think how much personal information is on the disk.

The typical person who buys that old computer from a neighborhood yard sale probably would not do more than eavesdrop on your life. If you're the trusting type, take just a few basic steps to discourage it:

Delete all the files you created on the computer. One easy way: Right click on the Windows Start Button, select Explore, and use Windows Explorer to see everything on the hard drive. Click on My Documents and other folders where you may have saved documents. Delete the document files, or delete the whole folder.

Remember that deleting only puts the data into the Recycle Bin, where it still can be read. Right click on the Recycle Bin icon on your desktop, and "empty."

Next delete contents of the inbox, outbox, sent items and deleted items from Outlook Express, Outlook or whatever program you use for e-mail. Delete your mail account so the computer's next owner can't download your e-mail. With the e-mail program running, click on Tools, Accounts, and remove the accounts.

Remove footprints of your online travels. With Internet Explorer running, click Tools, Internet Options, the General tab, and those delete buttons. Click "Clear History."

Then recheck, take another look in the Recycle Bin, and empty again if necessary.

Feel totally safe? Don't.

Deleting files doesn't delete anything. It simply tells the computer that the files' disk space is available for reuse. Even though the file names are invisible to you, an expert who thinks it's worthwhile can still retrieve those deleted files.

You've got to go beyond delete - and beyond reformatting the hard disk - to remove data from a computer.

There are several simple ways of doing it.

One is to remove the hard disk drive and keep it in a safe place. A second involves physically destroying the hard disk. Take it out, and drill holes right through the center. Another involves "degaussing" the hard disk holding a strong magnet near it.

If you want to keep the computer operable, consider programs available in local stores and online. They overwrite the entire hard disk with random ones and zeros, the letters in the digital alphabet. The U. S. Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency and other government security agencies use this method.

The online products include Eraser (, Softpedia/DP Wiper (, WipeDrive ( and SuperScrubber (

- For further information on sanitizing a hard disk, check


E-mail Michael Woods at mwoods(at)
Distributed to subscribers by Scripps Howard News Service.

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