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Digital Spring Cleaning - Be Green and Secure

Recycled or donated computers containing the confidential information of the prior owner are often a source of identity theft or embarrassment for those who do not take the proper steps to remove the data. Dragging a file to the recycle bin does not remove the data from the computer and data on hard drives is not automatically overwritten data. Help the environment and improve your individual and collective security by sharing and exercising these tips before disposing of your personally owned computing devices.

As you upgrade your personal devices to the latest and greatest, consider how you recycle the old equipment.  Being green doesn't mean you can't be safe and secure. Take steps now to remove anxiety later over forgotten sensitive files on your last laptop that could become a source of embarrassment or identity theft. Trying to securely delete data at the time you decommission equipment can turn into an exhausting chore and a source of stress, but it doesn't have to be that way.

Make sure saved copies of your tax filings, personal photos, and other sensitive files can't be retrieved by the next person with access to your computer's hard drive by making the drive unreadable to anyone else. Dragging files to the trash or recycle bin does not remove data—it just removes the retrieval path to the file and marks that storage space available for other data to occupy sometime in the future. Your pirate treasure is still buried, but the map is missing. Secure file deletion or digital shred functions go a step further to overwrite the data in those locations with random bits immediately.  It may take a while if you have a lot of data, but it is worth it.

The introduction and growth of solid state drives (SSD) in consumer electronics, however, makes overwriting the data in these spaces less dependable than in the standard hard drives of the past. Today's "delete/overwrite" protection comes most reliably from full disk encryption, which encrypts all data on the machine—including the operating system and temporary files you may not even be aware existed.  Follow the motto of a famous infomercial to "set it [full disk encryption] and forget it [the password/key]!" Even if someone removes the drive and puts it into a different machine, the encryption remains in place.

Plan A: Encrypt the full disk now using built-in functionality.  Create a strong passphrase or password, since this becomes the decryption key!  Everything will be encrypted, including the operating system, so you may have to "unlock" the encrypted drive with your personal passphrase every time you start or boot up your computer.  Save the generated recovery key somewhere secure like a USB drive, a password manager or printout stored in a safe; in case you forget your password and need to access the data on that machine.  Here are links to instructions to enable some of the most common built-in encryption functions:

Plan B: If full disk encryption isn't a built-in option, find a free or fee version of full disk encryption software that works with your operating system and personal capability.  Check your favorite review sites or try Slant for recommendations.

Plan C:  If you are donating the computer and want the hard drive to remain usable, consider a secure wipe of the drive.  Mac computers have a built-in feature for wiping hard drives, but ensure you select the Security Options and set the appropriate level.  Windows drives may be securely wiped with a third party utility like Darik's Boot and Nuke.  However, if you have a SSD, then a different utility is needed whether Mac or PC.

Plan D (Destroy): Hammer time! Remove and destroy the drive (Geek Squad offers a three-minute tutorial on hard drive disposal).  Most retail stores that accept computer donations for safe recycling will remove the drive and give it to you for secure destruction—just ask them for it.  Smash it, drill it, or hold onto the drive until there's a secure shredding event in your community.

The tips and tricks offered above are for your personally owned devices only. 

Secure and safe disposal of a University asset is provided by Information Services.  Please contact the Help Desk if you have any equipment that needs to disposal or cleaning.