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Data danger: How to 'kill' unwanted computers

Want to get rid of an old computer?  You better not simply toss it in the trash!  TODAY Tech Editor Paul Hochman lists the simple and easy ways to get rid of data stored deep inside your hard drive.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

So you want to get rid of an old computer?  You better not simply toss it in the trash!  Sensitive data is stored deep inside your hard drive, and it is not tough for a computer-savvy criminal to get to it! TODAY's Tech Editor & Men’s Journal Contributor Paul Hochman walks us through the right way to “kill a computer:”

If you are civic-minded, you probably have heard there are up to 4 pounds of lead in the average PC and even some mercury.  And, you don’t want it to end up in the landfill.  You do the right thing and contact your local solid waste disposal company (most towns contract with one or two companies). You arrange to have that old PC picked up and properly recycled, so you leave it by the curb.

What you may have done, though, is dangerous — to you anyway!  In addition to breaking any number of federal regulations for information disposal (more on that in a moment), you may also have given away your credit card numbers, bank account information, Social Security number and those embarrassing pictures of your starring role in the high school musical!

Here’s why:  data is amazingly durable.  Even when you think you’ve thrown everything in the computer’s “trash,” all you have really done by using the recycling bin is disconnect your documents from the computer’s so-called directory.  In other words, all the documents, spreadsheets and other personal information you ‘trashed’ are still very much intact on your hard drive.  And for a data thief, that’s incredibly easy to get.

According to the data security research firm Poneman Institute, it’s not only important to safeguard your data, it’s cheap. Depending on the solution you choose, they estimate the cost of data theft prevention to be about 4% of what it will end up costing you if that data is stolen!

But, have no fear!  There are 3 easy solutions: cleaning, purging and destroying.

Cleaning Software can clean your hard drive by simply ‘overwriting’ the information you have stored there.  Basically, your hard drive is separated into tiny pieces where each document sits, meaning there a collection of 0’s and 1’s it reads as a document. Symantec makes software called Norton SystemWorks.  It contains a feature called “WipeInfo” that will intentionally write random 0’s and 1’s over your old ones.  This makes that old data nearly impossible to resurrect.  This particular software sells for around $69 and works on computers with Windows NT, Windows 2000 and Windows XP.

PurgingA process called degaussing zaps your hard drive with such a big magnet that the magnetic bits your computer once read as information are permanently purged.  Keep in mind, this permanently damages your hard drive!  So if you want to donate your computer after removing your personal data… this is not the option for you!  The hard drive will be rendered useless.  Many companies specialize in degaussing.  You simply bring them your hard drive and for about $25 per purge, they will do the work for you.

DestroyingShredding your hard drive is just like shredding a bank statement document… it completely destroys it!  Shredding is done at a professional facility like DataKillers in Maryland, which uses $50,000 machines to turn your hard drive into shrapnel.  While extreme, shredding is highly effective.  In fact, the Department of Defense and other security groups certify the process as the ultimate in data theft prevention.  The cost will vary depending on the size of your drive.

Finally, keep this in mind: you must destroy personal data if your computer was used for business.  Even if you’re a tiny home business owner with a few part-timers, if you have their Social Security numbers or credit card information in your computer, the government can fine you hundreds or even thousands of dollars for tossing other people’s information in the trash without properly zapping it.

Intimidated?  Don’t be.  It’s easy. And besides, there’s something therapeutic about starting anew!  For more information on how to safely dispose of your electronics, check out the EPA’s website.