You’ve upgraded to a new computer or maybe replaced that old monitor with a shiny new LCD monitor. Congratulations! So much of our daily life is spent using a computer, that we like to have the newest things we can. It definitely makes a difference to your working life. You will notice a difference with the speed at which you can do things and also the overall appearance of your work.
Not to rain on your parade, but… what are you going to do with the old computer or monitor? There are two important elements you should be concerned with:
- your personal information could still be accessible on your old computer, even if it’s broken
- Computers (and most electronics) include a lot of hazardous waste you won’t want in your local landfill or water supply
Safe-guard your data by destroying it
Over the years, lots of files can stack up in your computer containing vital information about you, your family, and your finances. Whether they be tax filings, receipts, or anything of that nature, that information in the wrong hands could set you way back and make you another victim of identity theft. There were over 10 million accounts of identity theft in 2008 and discarded computers would be just one way that malicious individuals could get their hands on others’ personal information.
Taking steps like deleting files and even formatting your hard drive is not enough to safe guard you. It might make the job one step more complicated, but it does not safe guard you. Instead, you need to completely overwrite the hard drive with random data.
For a very basic understanding of how hard drives work, you can think of it as a block in your neighborhood. There are all sorts of houses on this block and they each have an address so they can receive their mail and people can find it. Let’s say we’re looking at Maple Street. The houses represent your different files. The square one over there is a Word document, the cool, young couple’s house over there is a legally-obtained MP3, the one with the big picture window in the front is a JPEG picture, and the strange one over there with the weird smell that is dragging down your property value, that is an MKV video file (nobody wants those).
When you delete a file, the house remains there; it just takes away the address. If we deleted the Word document, the square house would still be there, but we wouldn’t know how to find 101 Maple Street any more because no house has that address any more. When the file is deleted it not only takes away the address, but it also puts a For Sale sign up in the front yard. This means that somebody else could move into the neighborhood. Now let’s say we download a new file. It sees the For Sale sign and moves into the neighborhood. It demolishes the old square house, builds a new one on the same lot and gets the appropriate address.
For an accurate scale of the hard drive, this block is just a sector. The subdivision could be a track and your city could be the platters (depends how big your hard drive is) To finish up the analogy, formatting a drive is like taking all the addresses off all the houses. When somebody gets your formatted hard drive, they would be in a ghost town. None of the houses have addresses and nothing can direct you to the houses, but all the information is still there.
What you want to do
Instead of just formatting the computer and saying sayonara, what you should be doing is using another program like Darik’s Boot and Nuke or CopyWipe. I am more familiar with Darik’s Boot and Nuke or DBaN, as it is commonly known. These utilities overwrite your hard drive a number of times with random 1’s and 0’s (the components that make up every file). Back to the analogy, it would be comparable to a tornado going through the block and dropping random bricks everywhere and pulling bricks from the old houses. You can set how many times the software overwrites the hard drive with this information using different standards like the Department of Defense or your own custom amount.
To use DBaN, download either the .iso to burn a bootable CD or the .exe to build a floppy disk. Create your media and then boot off of it (you might have to change the boot order in your BIOS). Here you can select which drive to wipe (if you have more than one), how many passes to make, and how many rounds to make those passes.
When the DBaN finishes, you will have the peace of mind that you have thoroughly prevented or very seriously hampered any data snooping or forensic attempts on your hard drive.
If DBaN isn’t able to complete because of an error or perhaps a physical problem with the hard drive, I’d recommend just taking a drill press to the hard drive and physically making it unreadable.
Now that your data is safe you can just toss that old computer, right? Well, you could but you shouldn’t. Your computer or monitor ending up in a landfill would be environmentally detrimental. Electronics contain all sorts of heavy metals and toxins like lead, mercury, and cadmium; things that you don’t want to end up in your water supply eventually because of landfill leakage. You can find out more about this by searching for ‘e-waste’ or starting with this Wikipedia article.
Even if your old computer is just too slow for you, there’s a good chance some organizations might be able to make it a valuable tool for education in under-served locations. Since using DBaN on the hard drive, you know your data is completely wiped out and it should be safe to give the computer to anybody else.
You might investigate the following organizations or see if there is a school or charity in your area that would take used computer for good causes.
Computers for Schools
If you’re not able to find a charity or organization in your area, you can also search for electronics recycling (or e-cycling) centers near you through the EPA website.
There’s your green moment for the day.