Law-abiding civilian wants to kinda remove personal info from a laptop
November 27, 2009 2:41 PM   Subscribe

What are the basic steps to remove personal information off of a hard drive? (XP Home, SP3)

I'm trading up a work computer for a newer one. I'd like to make sure to erase things like my frequent flier password, browsing history and downloaded docs, emailed files, and documents I created myself.

I realize many people would find it easiest just to reformat the hard drive, but I'd rather not do that myself, as I don't know what I'm doing or have the disks, plus that'd look more suspicious than leaving behind a few non-work files. I'm not concerned anyone is going to run file recovery software or investigate me, and I don't have any confidential client data that I need to protect. I don't use this for much besides work, and I never save bank passwords, and they're probably going to reformat the computer right away, so I'm not that worried.

I just don't want someone to open a folder and accidentally stumble across some doc I forgot about ("FindingANewJob.doc") or some cached NSFW pic or pdf download that I clicked on in Metafilter, or some embarrassing google search term, or a personal essay a friend emailed me on Outlook that I edited over the weekend. I'm looking for a middle ground between the Department of Defense seven-wipe wiping standard and/or total reformat, and just leaving behind entire folders full of potentially-personal things.

What's a reasonable way for me to clean files and browsing history off of the computer? Is there a good checklist of folders to empty out? Is there a way to know which folders have exclusively system files and which have user-created documents? If you delete a file, then empty the Recycling Bin, is that pretty good or is there one step further you need to take to keep someone from accidentally encountering TMI?

If it matters, I am one of three users on the machine, and I don't know if I have full admin privileges, but I can add and remove programs.

I realize this is a pretty common question, and I've found some decent eHow articles, but I trust AskMe more than my googling skills. Thanks a bunch for any advice you can offer.
posted by salvia to Computers & Internet (9 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Ask your IT people what they recommend. Normally, I'd just wipe a drive with one of the faster (but still very secure) options included in DBAN, but since it sounds you like don't want to wipe the whole drive, perhaps there is already a policy or guideline in place.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 2:50 PM on November 27, 2009

Best answer: *C:\Documents and Settings\ contains "My Documents" along with application settings and some temporary files. Delete it (after copying/backing up!) via: right-click "My Computer", choose "Properties", the "Advanced" tab, then the "Settings" button under User Profiles.

*Delete c:\windows\temp

*Do you have a personal download/temp folder? Clear those out.

*Run a search for pdf/jpg/whatever files. Sort by size/location/date then delete appropriately

*Clear Firefox's cache or uninstall it and make sure the install folder is deleted

*SDelete has a "zero free space" option that can be run after clearing out files/folder/recycle bin

posted by llin at 2:57 PM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

In all likelihood they are going to reinstall the OS anyway, as errors tend to accumulate over time. It's not a big deal to reformat the hard drive - you'll be amazed at how cathartic it is to wipe the whole thing out. I don't think anyone in IT would be surprised that you wiped the hard drive, everyone I know in that position would do the same thing.

If you decide not to go that route - then be sure to empty the trash, you My Downloads directory, your internet history and your My Documents, My Pictures, and My Music directories. Unless you've made your own folders on the hard drive, this is where everything you've downloaded and created will go.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 3:02 PM on November 27, 2009

Best answer: if you're concerned about people undeleting your files, defragging the hard drive after deleting all your personal files should solve that problem.
posted by rmd1023 at 3:20 PM on November 27, 2009

Former EbilITGuy here. We always just installed a new image based on where the PC is being re-purposed to. I worked in an engineering environment and old machines were usually moved to the test/lab environment. I actually loved it when users formatted their old machines. It saved me some time. I'd even stop by and start the process if they indicated they wanted to. Doesn't hurt to ask.
posted by white_devil at 3:40 PM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just remove any personal programs as well as any folders they may have left behind and your user folder under "Documents and Settings". That folder stores all your temp folder, application data, browsing history, etc.
posted by wongcorgi at 5:45 PM on November 27, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks so much for all the answers so far. These are all helpful (not just the ones I marked "best").

Anywhere else a bunch of personal or cached files might be tucked away?

I also will ask the IT person if I could get the wiping process started for him.
posted by salvia at 6:51 PM on November 27, 2009

CCleaner is a good way to nuke lots of cache files, tempfiles, and other similar leftovers. (And it's free.)
posted by bhance at 8:41 PM on November 27, 2009

windows comes with a free encryption utility that will write random data over all the empty space on your hard drive, which will prevent people from using file recovery software to see what you deleted after you've cleared all the personal info.

run the following command at any DOS prompt:

cipher /W c:
posted by walljm at 9:54 PM on November 27, 2009

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