How Can I Clean Up My Computers and Tech Devices Before I Recycle Them?
Updated: Apr 21, 2021
Earth Day is almost here and it's a great time to discuss responsible recycling of technology devices once it has reached the end of its life. All of us have heard the horror stories about someone buying a used tech device at a flea market or garage sale and then finding tons of personal information left on the device by the previous owner. Just as you take steps to shred important documents before you throw them away, you need take this same approach when recycling your devices, whether that be your computer, external hard drives, and mobile device such as phones and tablets. This way, no matter where your recycled device ends up, you can feel secure knowing it contains zero data about you.
First thing is First. Backup your data. Before erasing anything, though, be sure to back up your data. This may seem obvious or you may think there's nothing you need saved on your old device, but it's better to be safe than sorry.
There are plenty of options for backing up information, including external hard drives, flash drives and cloud backup services such as OneDrive, Dropbox, Google Drive and iCloud Drive, so select a method that works for you.
Erasing isn't enough. Taking the basic steps-deleting data from or reformatting a computer hard drive, or doing a factory reset on a smart phone or tablet-might be enough to discourage identity thieves. But this approach is far from a guarantee, and it won't stop someone who's specifically after your files, accounts, or photos.
Personal computers. When you're recycling your old laptop or desktop, the simplest and most secure solution is to physically remove the hard drive and take a hammer to it. But if screwdrivers intimidate you or you want the computer to remain functional so someone else can use it, you'll have to use a program like DBAN Hard Drive Eraser. You can also securely erase a Mac using its built-in Disk Utility.
Apple iOS. Apple generally does a better job of securely erasing your personal data than Android because it automatically encrypts your data wen you add a passcode. When you factory-reset your iOS device, the passcode and encryption key are securely deleted. Any data that's left behind is securely scrambled, and thereby inaccessible to all but the highest-level data-recovery experts. Android. If you haven't already, encrypt your Android device. This will require a password whenever you turn on your device, but it makes it easier to securely erase it when it comes time to get rid of it. If your Android device is encrypted, you can just perform a factory reset to securely wipe any personal data off your Android device. .
Gaming consoles. There's no easy way to do a secure wipe of game-console storage, so you'll have to rely on the standard factory reset. For most consoles, you can physically remove the hard drive and hook it up to a PC or Mac, and securely erase it via the method mentioned above. But generally, the sensitive data on consoles is stored in non-removable Flash memory.
Bottom line. Remember, even if you follow my advice to securely delete files from electronic devices, the only foolproof way to make sure no one can retrieve your data is to physically destroy hard drives and memory chips (following proper safety precautions). Of course, if you smash your device, you won't be able to sell it, trade it in, donate it, or give it to a friend.
If your devices ever contained top-secret documents, you may want to look for a hammer. For the rest of us, the methods above should be reasonably sufficient to keep your personal data safe.
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