Scrub data before getting rid of old computers

Company officials know that they must properly dispose of computers to protect personal information as well as the environment.

Here are some tips for companies and for individuals who are looking to upgrade old computers without unwittingly making the hard drives available to identity thieves. Think of all the passwords, account numbers, addresses, phone numbers, tax returns, medical information, registration numbers for software programs and other information that's available.

A New York computer forensics firm wanted to find out just how much personal information could be found on hard disks it had recently purchased in bulk from eBay. The firm, Kessler International, found 40 out of 100 drives to contain sensitive information, including corporate financial data, photographs, e-mails, personal documents and Web-surfing history, ComputerWorld reported.

Kessler International retrieved: personal and confidential documents, including financial information, from 36 percent of the computers; e-mails, 21%; photos, 13%; corporate documents. 11%; Web browsing histories, 11%; DNS server information, 4%; miscellaneous data, 4%.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, users should first save important files on an external storage device, such as a USB Drive, CD ROM, or external hard drive, and transfer it to a new computer. Next, use software to "wipe" your hard drive clean. Some people feel safer using a program that wipes the hard drive many times. Some companies have used a sweeping procedure developed by the U.S. Department of Defense, which overwrites hard drives with zeros and ones so there is no possibility of data being recovered. Another option is to remove the hard drive and physically destroy it.

CIO Today reported today that reformatting a hard drive is a simple option, but it doesn't go far enough because the data isn't really erased. "In the wrong hands, a bit of time and skill are all that's needed to recreate date the user thought had been erased forever."

Once the hard drive is clean, disposing of a computer can be tricky, as it contains heavy metals such as lead and mercury that can contaminate the soil. The EPA's eCycling Web site is one site that lists electronic recycling programs.

For more information on disposing of computers, read Old computers, unwanted mail: Get rid of them without harming the environment.

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