Look ma, no passwords
November 20, 2011 11:25 AM   Subscribe

A relative passed away. I've been asked by family to wipe her work laptop before it is returned to the company. I don't have any of her passwords. Is there a way to wipe it anyways and have it in a returnable condition?

My aunt passed away last week and I need to wipe her Dell Latitude D505 work laptop. I don't think there is anything too sensitive on there but she headed up a no-kill shelter and people are worried that sensitive info would be left on the computer. It's running Windows XP, ctrl alt del log in screen pops up and I can't get past it to do anything without her passwords. I am at a Starbucks with the laptop, an iPhone and an iPad and would like to take care of this as soon as possible. Is it possible to wipe the laptop and have it in good condition in these circumstances?
posted by alcopop to Computers & Internet (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well, you could do a total wipe with DBAN, but that's gonna leave no operating system or anything. If her work has an IT department, they are going to wipe it before they hand it back out anyway.
posted by deezil at 11:32 AM on November 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

You could remove the harddrive, hook up a USB adapter to it and plug it in to another computer to format it. Without any passwords it gets a bit more tricky.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:33 AM on November 20, 2011

Does the company want you to wipe it or does your family want you to wipe it? It's company property. If someone left my organization (law firm for an insurance company) and people are explicitly told they are not to think of wiping their laptops with fire and brimstone from the powers that be to follow shortly if they do.

DBAN. But ask first.
posted by Brian Puccio at 11:34 AM on November 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Or you could use DBAN!
posted by Burhanistan at 11:34 AM on November 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are ways to reset that password using a live Linux CD - take a look here. It's a little involved, but might let you do it.

Otherwise, I'd consider using a live CD (knoppix is a good one) to boot into the laptop and reformat the HD.
posted by jquinby at 11:34 AM on November 20, 2011

It's a giant company and they will absolutely wipe it but one person in the family is really paranoid and it's exacerbated by this hard situation. I'm toying with just saying I wiped it as this person would likely never know.
posted by alcopop at 11:34 AM on November 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

Family wants me to wipe it. It hasn't been used in 1 year and all work projects backed up with the company at that time.
posted by alcopop at 11:37 AM on November 20, 2011

Ah, looks like the key utility in that Ubuntu how-to (chntpw) is also present on a much smaller ClamAV live distribution here. You could download that and boot from it, then give it a shot with the instructions in my other link. Bonus: it includes DBAN as well.
posted by jquinby at 11:39 AM on November 20, 2011

I have done this. Process goes like this:

1. Buy this adapter. It will take any drive and make it USB:

2. Remove hard drive from laptop. Usually it is just one screw, then slide the laptop carriage tray out the side of the machine.

3. Plug the adapter onto the drive. You'll be able to see how they fit together.

4. Plug the drive into a working computer. Copy files if you want.

5. Format the drive. Use the "deep format" or other similar option to format well.

6. No corporate entity is going to spend the time to recover anything else from the drive.

Alternate plan, replace the drive with another, new drive.
posted by fake at 11:46 AM on November 20, 2011

Physically removing (or replacing?!) the drive is absolutely unnecessary. Just run DBAN.

Your relatives are not being crazy here, and at a time like this they'll appreciate your conscientiousness. The chance the company will notice (much less care) that the OS has been wiped is miniscule. And if they do, what are they going to do?
posted by caek at 11:53 AM on November 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

The laptop and the data belong to the company, not the relatives. Do not wipe the data. Give it back as-is.
posted by brownrd at 12:06 PM on November 20, 2011 [5 favorites]

The laptop and the data belong to the company, not the relatives. Do not wipe the data. Give it back as-is.

2nding this. If the laptop is company property you could be committing a crime by wiping it. I'm sure some anti-hacker law can be twisted to turn wiping the drive into hacking.
posted by COD at 12:27 PM on November 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh please. Wipe the machine. If they lived without this data for a year (and it's not backed up elsewhere anyway) they don't need it that bad. And as far as crimes, what do you mean? I didn't wipe Aunt Sally's machine, it must be damaged or it happened long ago. You have no idea why it's blank.

Your paranoid family member is more right than this attitude that prioritizes some unlikely company data. You never know whose hands something is going to pass through or what sort of stuff is on there. Why roll the dice that someone with questionable morals isn't going to get their hands on it, or assume corporate IT is on the ball and will do a proper wipe before end-of-lifting this dinosaur and giving it to Goodwill for the write off?
posted by phearlez at 12:36 PM on November 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Speaking as someone who works in digital forensics, just removing the user account and files - even securely deleting them - is not sufficient. Windows leaves fragments and even entire duplicates of user files all over the place. You will only be able to guarantee sensitive information is unrecoverable by securely erasing the entire drive.

I can't comment on the company property thing.
posted by fearnothing at 1:00 PM on November 20, 2011

The specific question that alcopop asked, which as far as I can see no one has even attempted to address, is: can a hard drive on a laptop whose password you don't know be wiped clean at a STARBUCKS with only an iPhone and iPad.

I don't know the answer (and perhaps alcopop is home now and able to use other tools) but that was the question, as far as I can see.
posted by cincinnatus c at 1:14 PM on November 20, 2011

Have you tried ophcrack to recover the password?
posted by briank at 1:19 PM on November 20, 2011

Ex-Heretical once had to wipe a drive through work. This involved:

-Formatting the drive
-Filling every sector with data
-Repeating this four more times
-Taking a high-powered magnet to the disks
-Physically smashing the disks
-Incinerating the disks

If that family member is THAT paranoid, that right there's about the right way to make the data unrecoverable.

...Honestly, if the data's been backed up by the company, there's no problem. I'd advocate against wiping it myself, unless Dear Old Auntie had a thing for raunchy IRC channels and sketchy red-light websites or something.
posted by Heretical at 3:22 PM on November 20, 2011

I'm just going to leave it at this point. There is no Internet at the house, and I'd have to go get any of the supplies needed for this. I am here for one more day (which will mostly be the memorial) and will have to (perhaps naively) trust in the IT department. Thanks for the advice.
posted by alcopop at 3:33 PM on November 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

If the D505 has a recovery partition (or if you have the factory recover CD) you can simply boot off of that, full format (in a dos prompt: just type "format d:" if D: is the drive containing the system partition). Then from that same recovery partition or CD, run the factory restore. The full format satisfies your requirement of fully wiping data (one pass is all you need unless you're worried the CIA has taken special interest) and the factory reset ensures that you're returning the laptop in working condition.

More info here
posted by samsara at 4:06 PM on November 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

(I see that you have mostly given up, this may just be for future searchers...)

This would probably cover all concerns:

1- Make an image of the laptop drive. Make sure the image works.
2- DBAN the original drive.
3- Mount the image, search for and delete any personal information.
4- Write the image back onto the original laptop.

Another option that might work is to boot with a recovery-type LiveCD like Recovery Is Possible, delete personal files, empty recycle bin, write zeros to the slack space.

Third option: tell the IT people of the organization that you would prefer if they wiped the machine before re-deploying it.
posted by gjc at 6:11 AM on November 21, 2011

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