Tech-Friendly: Recycle old electronics part two — deleting data securely

By Paul Gorski

Last week, in “Recycle the old electronics this holiday season” (Nov. 14-20 issue), I encouraged readers to recycle old electronics this holiday season. I received a phone call and an e-mail reminding me about secure deletion of files on these devices to prevent identity theft and other crimes. So noted.

We use our electronic devices in so many different ways these days, and past credit card transactions and other sensitive data may be available on that old internal hard drive or storage device that we want to donate. You should either remove that data securely or destroy the data drive completely during the recycling process.

Super Shredders (, a division of the Barbara Olson Center of Hope, offers not only document shredding but secure deletion and destruction of computer data, too. Complete destruction of the hard drive ensures that the data will never be recovered.

Often, though, we don’t want to completely destroy the hard drive or storage device, but safely reuse it. I’ll limit my discussion to computer storage devices here, but as smartphones are used for more financial transactions, you should take steps to remove that data securely, too.

Even experts debate the best way to delete data on computer drives. To start, though, emptying the “Trash” on your computer doesn’t actually delete data from the computer, it simply hides it.

Most current hard drives and solid state drives (SSD) have built-in commands that can help securely delete data on that individual drive. Using those commands is outside the realm of a “tech-friendly” column, so I suggest that you seek out your favorite computer technician for advice. Once a drive is erased using these firmware commands, you’ve met U.S. government guidelines for secure deletion.

There are computer programs that will allow you to “zero” a drive or write random data to the drive to erase data. This method is preferable to doing nothing at all, but depending on how the data is written to the drive, may not be effective against a dedicated hacker trying to retrieve that data. Still, this is a commonly-used method to erase information with a good level of security.

Overwriting data is less effective on SSDs for technical reasons. SSDs are drives used in new MacBook Pros, Chromebooks and other new computers, and are available as after-market replacement drives. Suffice to say you can overwrite data on SSDs, but you’ll need to do it at least three times, and it will shorten the life of the drive. What do you care, you’re recycling it!

In the end, you may have to pay someone (not me) for an hour or two of labor to securely delete the data on your computer or pay to have your computer hard drive destroyed. But those costs are insignificant to the costs of credit card fraud or identity theft. You don’t want a stranger to buy his Christmas gifts with your credit card or bank account.

Paul Gorski ( has been a technology manager nearly 20 years, specializing in workflow solutions for printing, publishing and advertising computer users. Originally destined to be a chemist, his interest in computers began in college when he wrote a program to analyze data from lab instruments that he hard-wired to the back of an Apple IIe.

From the Nov. 21-27, 2012, issue

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