Banging a hammer against your hard drive: It’s not just a satisfying way take out your extra aggression on a helpless piece of old technology.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) also says it’s one way to help protect sensitive data that may still be held within an old personal computer you want to discard. The idea, the federal tech agency says, is to “disfigure, bend, mangle or otherwise mutilate” your hard drive so it can’t be reinserted into another computer.
It’s important to take precautions to help make sure someone can’t steal sensitive information, such as your bank records, Social Security number, tax records or other personal data that is stored on your computer. While physical destruction is one method of helping to protect your info, it may not be the most practical option if you plan to donate or sell the device. Here is another measure you can take: wiping the data from the hard drive so your computer can safely be reused.
Start the process by making a copy of your files on an external hard drive or a new computer (Microsoft has suggestions on how to do that on a computer running Windows; and here are Apple’s recommendations on backing up your Mac hard drive).
Then, avoid the temptation to just delete your files because, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT), it isn’t effective. Even if you move files to the recycle bin on your computer and then “empty the trash,” the information is still there, the agency says. It can still be retrieved.
A better alternative, according to US-CERT, is to use a program that deletes the data and then overwrites, or wipes, the information from the hard drive multiple times. Experts are generally wary of making program recommendations, but Microsoft lists Active@KillDisk and Softpedia DPWiper as possibilities, while US-CERT says DBAN and Erasure are potential options for Windows computers (all four are free downloads). Apple.com offers instructions for how OS X users can clean their hard drives.
Consumer Reports says secure erasing can take “several hours or days to complete” so keep that in mind when planning when and how you’ll ultimately dispose of the device.
When the device is clean, consider what you’ll do with it next. You can pass it along to a neighbor or a friend or finally set up your great aunt Martha with Internet access, but, because computers can be made of metals, plastic and glass, you might also consider recycling it.
Many manufacturer- and retailer-sponsored programs will take your drop-offs or mail-ins and then dismantle the computers for materials recycling. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers a list of computer manufacturer and retailer programs that do just that.
If your computer is relatively new, though, you might consider selling it or trading it in instead. There are hosts of refurbishers that recondition and upgrade old computers for resale, or for use by people in underserved communities. Microsoft has a list of recommended refurbishers with both commercial and charitable objectives. Meanwhile, Apple has its own refurbish program, offering gift cards for devices it deems viable or recycling options if your computer is judged not reusable (even if your computer isn’t a Mac).
Whatever you decide, know that the companies that sponsor these programs recommend removing all the data from your computer before you send it off to its new home. If your needs are pretty basic, and you plan to sell or pass the device along, overwriting your data with a program might do the trick. But, if you’re looking for the ultimate protection – and peace of mind – you just might find that nothing short of a hammer will do.
PCWorld Magazine says using a hammer on your hard drive may be a waste of still-usable hardware, so you may want to consider the above options first. But, if you decide to destroy the drive instead, the NIST recommends these safety precautions:
Once these preparations are made, it’s time to smash the hard drive. The NIST says you should hit it hard enough on the top in order to make sure you damage the disk surfaces, and also to make sure to damage the ports that would allow it to connect to a computer.