Trying to avoid being a bad example to others...
September 6, 2010 4:55 PM   Subscribe

So I need to return my computer to the manufacturer...but there is the matter of some compromising photos.

So my computer went kaput, and since it's under warranty, Dell decided to just replace it.

I used the computer's webcam to take some...compromising photos of myself. Okay, it's just boobies plus face, but still nothing I'd want anyone else to see. I also looked at some websites I shouldn't have.

I've deleted the photos, obviously, but is that enough? I'm not a computer expert, but I know these things can still be recovered after deletion. I don't want them to end up anywhere. What happens to these computers after they're returned? Is it going to end up in a third-world country being mined for valuable personal info?

I should also mention that while I'm using the computer, it's technically not mine. However, I manage and maintain it and there won't be a third party between me and Dell. But it's officially not classified as a personal computer and wasn't purchased by me.

I have time before I have to return it. I have the original Windows restoration stuff it comes with. Also, the computer I'll be using to replace it is identical. I also thought about just swapping the hard drives, if only for ease of transferring stuff. But I wasn't sure if
1. Dell could tell that was done and would frown upon it and
2. it might cause problems with the new computer. Dell never really came out and said what was wrong with it, really. I think they said fried motherboard. I thought it was just a fan since the bottom gets hot and I can't feel any air out the back. But the top gets hot too, so Dell decided to replace it.

Thanks for any insight! Yes, I know I shouldn't have used it for other purposes...
posted by unannihilated to Computers & Internet (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
If it's a hardware problem, you can probably just take out the harddrive before you send it in.
posted by null terminated at 5:02 PM on September 6, 2010

They're replacing the entire computer, not fixing it. Since they're replacing it, they want you to send them the broken one back. So I think if I kept the hard drive, they would charge me for it. But I could call and ask them, I suppose.
posted by unannihilated at 5:06 PM on September 6, 2010

Do you have to return it to get it fixed? I put up an almighty fuss with Sony, and they sent a guy to my place.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:06 PM on September 6, 2010

You can remove the harddrive, and then format it (there are programs that will ultra-erase, meaning that they'll re-write over the entire drive in random ones and zeros 20 or 30 times), pop it back in, and then play a lot of dumb if they ever call you. You'll be fine.
posted by history is a weapon at 5:10 PM on September 6, 2010

While the photos can be recovered if somebody tried, it's certainly not a normal step in a hardware replacement to scan the customer's hard drive for deleted files. Even if a rogue tech wanted to snoop, that process takes a few hours, and there's no guarantee the files are still around.

That said, though, there's nothing wrong with wiping the hard drive before you send it back, just for safety and privacy's sake. Does the computer still start? If so, you can use a tool like Darik's Boot and Nuke (DBAN) to wipe the hard drive- you just burn a CD, boot off of it, and it does the magic. You can download DBAN from
posted by aaronbeekay at 5:11 PM on September 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

It does still start. Works perfectly fine, actually, aside from the overheating and a bit of lag.
posted by unannihilated at 5:12 PM on September 6, 2010

Back up all the data you that you want to keep and then do a system restore from the recovery partition. Usually you just have to hit ALT+F10 at the Dell splash screen when you first turn the computer on. Everything will be wiped out for all be the most determined snoops.
posted by sockpup at 5:14 PM on September 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

I use Eraser for things like this. It will delete any files irrecoverably, and can also erase all free space to make recovery of anything insecurely deleted impossible. Memail me if you need tips on setting it up and using it.
posted by procrastination at 5:22 PM on September 6, 2010

I returned an overheating laptop to Dell a couple years ago for a warranty replacement. Like you, I was worried about having to pay if I kept the hard drive, so I got all the files I needed off of it and then used Darik's Boot and Nuke to wipe the hard drive. It's pretty easy.
posted by pemberkins at 5:27 PM on September 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Darik's Boot and Nuke.
posted by sinfony at 5:27 PM on September 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

I had an overheating Dell at work and after multiple repair attempts they had us send the whole thing back for a replacement. Because my hard drive contained confidential files and we didn't have time (or want to worry about wiping it) we sent the computer back sans hard drive. They never even contacted us about the missing hard drive.
posted by labwench at 5:42 PM on September 6, 2010

Honestly, nobody who works with computers all day is going to have even the slightest desire to go through your harddrive for deleted files. It might be one thing if they were certain there was a bunch of great homemade porn on there, but they have absolutely no reason to suspect that there's anything worth recovering.

It doesn't hurt that the process of recovering files is really tedious. It takes hours. And I really doubt they have the facilities or time for it in the shipping and receiving department that will handle your RMA.

I'm not telling you that you shouldn't DBAN it. But, really, the chance anybody is going to go poking around is vanishing small. Your concerns are on the level of worrying that somebody at Verizon is listening to your phone sex.
posted by Netzapper at 5:52 PM on September 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Dell won't care what you did on your computer. But, it is possible that the hard drive might end up with someone who likes to snoop around and recover old files.

If that bothers you, I think the best idea is to use DBAN as mentioned above, and then restore windows. It will take a couple hours out of your life (only a few minutes of actual work on your part) and in return you get complete peace of mind that nothing you did on your computer will ever be found out by anyone.

It may be overkill, but I think wiping a drive clean is good practice whenever you give up possession of a computer to anyone.
posted by auto-correct at 6:16 PM on September 6, 2010

If you're going to send a broken computer back to Dell after they've replaced it, they won't be mad at you for running DBAN over it first. There's no need for you to put Windows back on there for them. They're better at that than you are.
posted by flabdablet at 6:32 PM on September 6, 2010

They never even contacted us about the missing hard drive.

I had the same experience.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:45 PM on September 6, 2010

Start it up, delete everything on the harddrive, clear the recycle bin. That's it. Dell has a huge volume of returns, and the poor schmuck tasked with cleaning/scrapping your returned PC has neither the time nor the freedom to do anything with it. They're not going to waste time and money doing any forensics to see if they can recover deleted files--they're just going to scrap it. You'll be fine.
posted by Burhanistan at 6:48 PM on September 6, 2010

Netzapper writes "Honestly, nobody who works with computers all day is going to have even the slightest desire to go through your harddrive for deleted files."

While it is unlikely this is demonstratively not true. Since the computer boots a wipe with DBAN or similar is prudent even if one has only had even "normal" personal documents on the system.
posted by Mitheral at 7:05 PM on September 6, 2010

I'm with auto-correct on this one - I'd be concerned about the HDD ending up in someone else's machine as a "remanufacture" (or in an external drive enclosure - drive manufacturers have been known to use returned drives in their retail external drives as they don't need to be declared as "used"), assuming the problem isn't HDD related. If the machine will stay stable long enough to do so, I'd pull any and all data you want to keep from the HDD, then do a system restore.

If the computer overheats before you can complete a system restore, use one of the formatting tools suggested to blank it completely. If the computer won't stay up long enough to do that, you'll have to pull the HDD, connect it to another computer and nuke it that way...
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 12:06 AM on September 7, 2010

I'd be inclined to DBAN. I once sent an iRiver HDD MP3 player in for repairs to the manufacturer. It came back with a blank HDD, although to be fair I'd been told to back everything up. I then ran recovery software on it (as there were some pix I hadn't backed up) and discovered dozens of someone else's pictures. Sadly none of them involved boobies.
posted by rhymer at 1:45 AM on September 7, 2010

If you know where all the files are, CCleaner will securely erase internet history, temp files, registry odds and ends, user specified folders and other possibly sensitive junk. Download, install, go to settings and check "secure delete - 7 passes" and "wipe free space", then mark any other folders you want erased (like "My Pics" or "UberSecretPr0n"), wait an hour or so.
posted by T.D. Strange at 7:00 AM on September 7, 2010

Empty your recycle bin. Sure someone could use advanced methods to recover data but unless there is a extreme reason for a Dell cyber criminal to try high-tech methods to get pics of your bewbs they will not bother. Are you a famous celebrity where these pics could be cashed in for millions of clams?
posted by JJ86 at 7:25 AM on September 7, 2010

Take out the hard drive. Tell them that you took out the hard drive. They'll send you a new computer and you can put the old hard drive in - or not. They may send you a new computer with a drive - or not

Dell (and other major companies) understand your needs (not the photos, of course - tell them it's financial stuff and maybe if you mention HIPAA . . .) and that you have data that you don't want to, and cannot, lose. If the person you talk to on the phone doesn't accept what you say, ask for a supervisor - and then the supervisor's supervisor.
posted by Man with Lantern at 12:20 PM on September 7, 2010

If you choose to wipe the drive it's worth noting that a single pass is enough. The multi-pass DoD-grade super-secure whatzit algorithms are paranoid overkill, and in reality date after a single pass is nigh-unrecoverable.

While it's theoretically possible to recover some data after a single pass, it's expensive and unlikely unless "boobies plus face" is code for "sensitive military intelligence stolen from a sovereign nation-state". In that case, I would recommend fire.
posted by truex at 9:06 AM on September 12, 2010

Also, there's a bonus typo in my last comment. Finding it is like a mini-game!
posted by truex at 9:07 AM on September 12, 2010

Thanks for the answers, all. I wasn't concerned about someone at Dell digging through my drive because they might find boobies, per say. More so that Dell would dispose of the drive in an insecure fashion and someone would look through it hoping to find financial or personal data and stumble on my stuff in the process. (And I did actually store some other secure things on there as well, but tax returns didn't sound as interesting as boobies.)

Since they already sent me the new computer and I want to get this off my to do list for good (I didn't want anyone hunting me down for a hard drive), I elected to just use DBAN and send everything back. Unfortunately, DBAN looked great but didn't work for me. I got the same error as this poster, and the highlighted best answer didn't work for me either. I'll either look at another program or send back as is. I just wanted to say thanks and direct others to the other post in case they get a similar error!
posted by unannihilated at 11:21 AM on September 14, 2010

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