Give away the PC, not personal data

Security: There are several ways to make sure your hard drive files can't be retrieved.

February 28, 2002|By Bill Husted | Bill Husted,COX NEWS SERVICE

If you could roam my PC's hard disk, you'd get a fairly complete tour of my life. At the click of a mouse, someone could find a recipe for the spaghetti sauce that I promised would never leave the family, my tax records and sure evidence that I spend way too much time playing video games.

It's not exactly exciting stuff. Even so, I wouldn't want a stranger pawing through it.

That's why Theda Davis wrote. She wants to give her old PC away, but she also wants to make sure someone doesn't help themselves to the personal and financial information stored on her hard disk. She knows that erasing the data won't really make it go away. And that even reformatting the hard disk - wiping it clean using the format command - isn't a surefire way to eliminate all personal data.

So what's a person to do?

The safest and easiest thing, as you might expect, is the only one that will cost you some money. There are various software programs - including the one I favor, the $50 Norton Utilities program from Symantec - that can wipe a disk clean so that information can't be recovered.

It has other uses as well, so if you want to take the easy way out, you can stop reading here. If you don't mind spending $50, it's a great solution.

Before we get into some of the other ways to solve the problem, let's talk about what happens when your computer deletes information. Knowing a little about that will make the explanations easier to follow.

When a file is deleted, it isn't really gone. Instead, the Delete command simply puts a label on the "deleted" file that says something like: Hey, this space on the hard disk is available, the old information isn't really needed anymore. Feel free to use this space.

So, until you copy additional information to the hard disk, the deleted file remains. Special programs, including those with Norton Utilities, can easily retrieve the file. Eventually, as you copy new data onto the hard disk, the old information disappears. But since you can't know for sure exactly when the old files are overwritten, you can't rely on that as a foolproof method of getting rid of the old data.

Programs such as Norton - when they are used to permanently eradicate the information - write a series of Xs and Os right over the old data. In a way, it's the equivalent of the paper shredder.

So the amount of trouble - and expense - that you take to solve this problem can be based on how sensitive your information is and who is getting the computer.

Most people aren't going to take the time, or have the skills, to retrieve deleted information. That's why some of you may feel that my second method is good enough. For that, you simply reformat the hard disk, following the directions you'll find in the Windows help file when you search for the word "reformat."

If you want to increase the protection, you can follow the advice I found recently in a trade publication. Corey D. Schou, director of the National Information Assurance Training and Education Center at Idaho State University, recommends reformatting the hard drive twice. "It makes a little more work," said Schou. "However, it does protect your information asset."

To make things even more secure, you could reinstall Windows and your programs (increasing the chance that the old information on the reformatted disk has new data copied on top).

Now, all these methods seem fairly safe to me. But some people - and there's nothing wrong with being cautious - still won't feel secure. In fact, I ran into one of those people last month. One of the editors at this newspaper wanted to be positively sure that no one saw his personal information.

I gave him the most foolproof method of eliminating the data I know. It sounds like a joke, but it's actually the best route for some people. You remove the hard disk and give the computer away without one. New hard disks can be purchased for $80 or less, and many people would be glad to have the machine with that condition.

There's an unexpected benefit to this method. Instead of deleting the information from the disk, you can tuck it away in a drawer as a backup copy of your documents. Or you can use it as a second hard disk in your PC, increasing storage space.

You can decide what works best for your information - or if you're feeling especially secretive, just take the cave-man approach and smash the computer's hard disk with a hammer. Now that's a low-tech approach that really works.

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