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10/05/2005 Archived Entry: "Disposal of hard drives"
"Scarrrry stuff, kiddies." At a recent meeting of our local Linux Users Group, for fun, one of the guys brought three computers he dug out of the dumpster at the local recycling depot. The challenge was to install Linux on one of them. Instead, we found that someone had left Windows installed...as well as a variety of personal files.
We were intrigued by this one machine because it still had a hard drive and CD-ROM installed. So before dismantling it, we tried booting it. It turns out that the machine had a defective floppy drive which stopped the boot process, but a few quick commands in the BIOS configuration screen bypassed the floppy, and then the machine booted immediately from its hard disk. (I speculated that that minor problem may have been why the machine was discarded.)
What surprises! We found Windows 98, and Outlook Express with an assortment of old sent and received emails. We also found a dial-up connection, from which we could have easily extracted her dial-up Internet account name and password. (It's not hard -- I've recovered lost passwords before.) As it happens, one of our group recognized the name and email address of the computer's previous owner, so we're going to wipe the hard disk and he's going to let her know what he found.
The moral: do not toss storage media into the dump. When the time comes to discard your old computer, either (a) remove the hard drive for safekeeping, (b) remove and physically destroy the hard drive, or (c) find some software that can really scrub the hard drive.
Please remember that deleting files, or repartitioning your drive, do not in fact remove any data from the drive. Often that data can be recovered. At that same Linux meeting, one chap related a conversation with a computer "recycler" who tried to sell him some defective disk drives. The recycler said he could get $1 apiece for those drives from people in Toronto who would "recover the data" from the drives. Translation: mine those drives for as much personal data as they could find, and then sell that data. Even disk drives which fail to work with your operating system can often be read by specialized software.
I'm for plan (a) -- I still have every hard drive we've ever used. (I never entirely trust that I've transferred all their data to our new disks, so I like to keep them around as backup.) My favorite example of plan (b) is Steve Ciarcia, who uses old hard drives for target practice with his S&W .44.
For plan (c), I know that there is software to erase hard drives (even to erase hard drives to DoD specification), but I have no specific suggestions. Googling "hard drive erase software" turns up an abundance of possibilities. I'd be interested to hear of any open-source or freeware products. (Here's one contender.)