Recycling computers Erasing PC data

To make sure your personal information doesn't fall into the hands of identity thieves, you'll need to erase sensitive data from your computer before you send it for recycling.

computer lab

Some charities will erase your PC's data before refurbishing it

This isn’t always easy. Sending information to the Recycle bin, for example, isn’t good enough. The Recycle bin represents an area of your PC’s hard disk where you store deleted files temporarily. It’s easy to recover files from here.

Fortunately, there are alternative ways to erase data from your computer.

Reformat your PC’s hard drive

One option is to reformat the hard drive. This will erase all your files and folders and any programs you’ve installed. The easiest way to reformat your drive is to reinstall Windows using the recovery disk that came with your computer. It may be possible to recover some of the data after you’ve done this, though.

Use specialist shredding software

Another option is to use specialist shredding software that erases or writes over the data on your computer.

Specialist charities like Computer Aid International, an organisation that donates refurbished computers to developing countries, scrubs personal data off your computer using specialist software like Blancco before refurbishing them.

If you’re going to the tip, leaving your computer outside for collection or giving it to a local charity, you should remove the data yourself for peace of mind. 

'Military-grade' software

Jean Cox-Kearns, Dell Europe’s Middle East and Africa take back and recycling manager, stresses the importance of cleaning your data off your PC’s hard drive using ‘military-grade’ software that’ll properly destruct the data stored on it.

Data erasing software should state whether it meets these military-grade standards. Some tools are even free to download and use, such as Eraser.

The PC World chain, which accepts old computer equipment for recycling when you purchase a similar item, said: ‘We point out people’s responsibility to remove personal data on the in-store point of sale [signs]. Or we can do this for them as a chargeable TechGuys [PC World’s technical support] service (£30).’

Although we haven’t tested data erasing software, scrubbing your computer’s hard drive is sound advice, especially considering the responses our fieldworkers received from councils when they asked what’d happen to data (see 'Council recycling advice').

Destroy the PC's hard drive

It’s still technically possible to retrieve data from a reformatted or erased computer hard drive. ‘Some data security services don’t go far enough to delete confidential information that resides on the hard drive and that’s how data is getting into fraudsters’ hands’, according to data recovery specialist Kroll Ontrack.

To make 100% sure your data doesn’t fall into the wrong hands Kroll advises that you remove the hard drive before you dispose of your computer.