Recycling a computer
May 25, 2006 2:45 PM   Subscribe

I'm sending an old computer off to recycling. What is the best way to delete old programs, files and personal information? Anything else I should do to it before recycling?
posted by socrateaser to Computers & Internet (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Take the hard drive out and smash it. If you plan on tossing the thing anyway, there's no reason not to destroy the physical storage device. Plus, it's kinda fun to smash up computer parts a la Office Space.
posted by yogurtisgenocide at 2:48 PM on May 25, 2006

Zero out the hard drive (write 00000000's to the drive). You can get something like UBCD that has a tool to do that (among a lot of other handy things).
posted by nitsuj at 2:48 PM on May 25, 2006

You can try Darik's boot and nuke. Download it, create boot disk with it, boot your machine with it, answer yes when it prompts. If for some reason that doesn't work, there are many other similar utilities.
posted by jellicle at 2:49 PM on May 25, 2006

The easiest would be to just format the hard-drive from a boot disk. Your Windows CD should be able to do this (you have to quit the installer and format from the command prompt), or you could download a Linux Live CD. Google is your friend in that case.

For security? There are programs that will overwrite a hard-drive multiple times to prevent someone from recreating deleted data. Again, google is your friend. Try searching for file or disk wipers to find a program that suits your needs.

If you want to be really secure, take out and destroy the hard-drive. I like hard-drive baseball, although the hard-drive bonfire is also fun.
posted by Loto at 2:51 PM on May 25, 2006

I asked a similar (though not identical) question a while back, and got some good responses about totally erasing the hard drive.
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:52 PM on May 25, 2006

If the computer is not too old, take out the ram and hold on to it. Also the power supply and optical drive can come in handy sometimes. If you're not cramped for space, it's a shame to throw these things out. Hang on to them, you might need 'em some day.
posted by Drunken_munky at 3:00 PM on May 25, 2006

The best way? Slagging.
posted by trevyn at 3:06 PM on May 25, 2006

Use DBAN as above. There is absolutely no simpler way to destroy data for sure. If you have data that requires more thorough destruction (which would essentially be physical annihilation), you would have been told the procedures beforehand. :)
posted by kcm at 4:28 PM on May 25, 2006

Do NOT just format the drive. Formatting the drive just once doesn't do a darned thing in terms of making the files hard to recover.

Use DBAN or some other software that will overwrite the hard drive with 00000000s or 11111111s, and make sure it does it a couple of times.

Mind you, there's no way in a million years I'd every donate one of my second hand hard drives, it's just not worth the risk, given that I do my taxes and keep all my personal info digitally. I vote for destroying the drive and just donating the rest of the machine. YMMV.
posted by tiamat at 4:50 PM on May 25, 2006

Here is another old question, Destroy my drives!, it gets a little silly and a little technical.

Please don't just trash stuff that people can use though! Many Pentium II and all newer systems are worth passing along to another user, even if you can't get any money out of them.

If you don't have a favorite charity, just leave it by the curb a couple of days before garbage collection. It won't be there for long.
posted by Chuckles at 5:05 PM on May 25, 2006

I'm somewhat to blame for the aforementioned thread getting silly and technical, and I'd say that DBAN is good enough for all practical purposes, if the drive still works.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 5:20 PM on May 25, 2006

I recommend a power drill with a carbide bit.

drives with holes through them are unlikely to tell any tales.
posted by Megafly at 5:46 PM on May 25, 2006

A friend who worked at Large Military Aerospace Contractor said that their common disposal method was to take the platters out of the drives and sandblast them.

DBAN oughta be good enough for normal people. Formatting was more effective in the days of floppies; AIUI, formatting a modern hard drive does a lot less overwriting (it's not a very low level format).

Chuckles' and especially trevyn's links look like more fun, though. I'm surprised no one brought up thermite. (One computer I used a while back allegedly had a thermite grenade on top of its drives --- to be set off in case of Soviet invasion, or something like that --- but this may just be a legend; I wasn't allowed in the computer room...)
posted by hattifattener at 6:04 PM on May 25, 2006

Another vote for Derik's Boot and Nuke.
posted by fvox13 at 6:18 PM on May 25, 2006

I like taking apart the drives. I pull out the strong magnets from the head actuators, play with the shiny shiny disks and then scratch them all to hell when I'm sick of playing with them.
posted by Good Brain at 7:42 PM on May 25, 2006

Ah, (the?) Good Brain beat me to it. The harddrive has lots of shiney bits that are fun to play with (make a mobile with the platters?). There's the (quite strong) magnet, too. Paint it with coloured latex and it makes a neato fridge magnet.
posted by porpoise at 8:16 PM on May 25, 2006

A friend of mine made a really neat windchime out of various old hard-drive platters, simply by hanging them up on a mobile-type X made of wood. Though I suppose you've only got one. Just a thought. The chimes sounded very pretty in the breeze.
posted by po at 9:05 PM on May 25, 2006

The magnets inside a hard drive are way fun to play with (and very easy to hurt yourself with... pinchy!).
posted by antifuse at 12:55 AM on May 26, 2006

Try to find a place that will re-use it, not recycle it. A place that will give it to a school or library. Don't destroy something that could still be useful to someone else. I've used, but they are San Francisco based. They might be able to recommend someone to you, though. You won't be filling third world landfills, and you get a charitable donation receipt for a tax deduction.

And, honestly, don't get scared off by the paranoid folks. If the computer was used in a government or corporate environment that might require disk destruction for security reasons, you wouldn't be asking the question. Just formatting the disk is fine. Yes, the data is easily recovered, but you're not that important. No one's going to be scanning through a stack of donated drives looking for your credit card number. It's much easier to get it online, or just ask you for it.

That said, for peace of mind, it's just as easy to use Darik's Boot and Nuke, as everyone else said. After that, the data is as close to unrecoverable as you can get without destroying the drive.
posted by team lowkey at 1:43 AM on May 26, 2006

posted by mr.marx at 6:35 AM on May 26, 2006

Please remember of course that 90% of the people you may give the drive to will have no idea whatsoever that there is a way to recover deleted files. Tech-minded people know this, but the average person just wants to know if their computer has enough memory to "get the Internet" and if the thing is fast enough to play game X. Not to mention that around 80% of the people I talk to still can't differentiate between which version of Windows and which version of Office they are running.

DBAN if you're paranoid, full format if you're not.
posted by caution live frogs at 6:52 AM on May 26, 2006

DBAN is nice, easy to use, secure. It is also SLOW. A DoD 5220.22M wipe (three passes- a fixed character, its complement, then another fixed character) will take about an hour for every two GB. On the plus side, the US DoE uses it to sanitize hard drives from nuclear power plants. If you are excessively concerned about security, DBAN offers many options for more wiping. All software data destruction methods will take significant time to complete.
In general, though, after one pass it will require an electron microscope to recover data. For a good but dated technical read, look here.
If you are looking for something faster, the USAF standard method for destroying sensitive hard media is degaussing (either with high powered magnetic degausser or by heating the platter significantly above the Curie point) then grinding the platters to powder.
posted by leapfrog at 7:03 AM on May 26, 2006

Formatting is just great. So long as no one actually tries to retrieve data from the drive. Like leaving your house unlocked is just great, so long as no one actually tries to enter.

DBAN is easy and effective. Formatting is easy and ineffective.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 7:34 AM on May 26, 2006

Yes, DBAN is easy and more effective than formatting. No reason not to do it, other than it takes longer. Best advice, hands down.

But come on. Formatting is not like leaving your house unlocked, where there's obvious valuables to be taken by any random passerby. It's more like selling your house and leaving your porno mags, family photos and old credit cards hidden under a floorboard. Maybe someone would search the place and find them, and maybe that person would decide to do something nefarious with them, but chances are overwhelmingly high that they would just sit there and rot away. And if someone did uncover them, they aren't going to do anything with them. It's just not reasonable to say "Never sell your house! Burn it to the ground! That's the only way to know for sure that someone won't find your DNA and clone you!!!"

It's refreshing to see people are at least aware and concerned about data security. It's important to know that just deleting your files doesn't mean they are gone for good. You should take the extra effort of scrubbing your old hard drive, and don't give it to someone who knows you. But regardless of what the credit card company ads suggest, there are not hoards of identity thieves waiting in the bushes for you to let your guard down. It's not a cost effective use of their time.
posted by team lowkey at 2:54 PM on May 26, 2006

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