How Can I Dispose of an old PC (and make sure my data is removed)?

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People get new computers just infrequently enough to remember what to do with the old computer.  Some people say “just wipe it” or “format it” or “re-install a clean version of Windows”, but those steps aren’t enough. Here’s why.

When you reinstall an operating system, you are given the option of formatting the drive. Although the word “formatting” often has the connotation of “erasing”, they’re really not the same thing.  Formatting marks all the sector of the hard drive as blank, so they can be written over as necessary.  However, those sectors aren’t erased until new data is written over them.  Therefore, if you format your hard drive, a utility designed to change the sectors from “please write data on me” back to “here’s your original data” can make all your information easily readable.  Even if you re-install a clean version of Windows, you aren’t writing new data over the entire hard drive, just the space that Windows takes on the hard drive.

To avoid that issue, here are my recommendations after backing up your data from the old PC, and moving it to the new machine.  To move your data, you can either use a USB hard drive, send it over the network to your new machine, or use an online service like Dropbox.

For getting your computer ready for disposal, start by downloading Darik’s Boot and Nuke Installation CD on your new computer, then burn it to disc. This utility works by formatting the drive, then writing dummy data over the entire drive – then wipes it a second time, writes that dummy data, then does this process a third time. To get started, follow these steps:

1. Download the package from here,. If you’re using Windows, open it using Windows Disc Image Burner by right clicking the file.

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2. Burn the disc, making sure to leave the “verify disc after burning” box unchecked.

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3. Reboot the computer. Make sure to tell the computer to boot from the CD/DVD drive, usually done by pushing F12 during startup, before Windows loads.

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4. Once the utility boots, push enter to access the menu, then enter to select the drive, then F10 to start the process.  Allow anywhere from 2 to 3 hours, depending on the size of the drive.

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Once the process is complete, you need to dispose of the old machine accordingly.  Some towns will take computers as part of their curbside pickup – many will require a trip to the local recycling center.  If those aren’t acceptable options, try calling your local Goodwill and donating the machine.

This should keep your data from falling into the “wrong hands” next time you get a new computer and need to dispose of the old one.