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How-To

Erase personal data from your computer with ease

No matter how hard you try to protect your privacy, your computer probably has some of your most sensitive data stored on it somewhere. While that information might not seem easily accessible, it often is, and needs to be wiped if you plan on upgrading, selling, or even throwing away your computer.

You might have heard someone say "format your hard drive" as a foolproof way to clean your drives of their data. While this process will certainly do something to your data, it won't actually erase it for good. It might remove some identifiers, but much of the underlying data is still retrievable even after formatting.

To actually erase your data, you need to do a few things depending on your computer. If you're on a Mac, the process is relatively easy.

If you're still using OS X 10.6 or earlier (you can check by hitting the Apple icon that's always in the top left of your screen, and clicking "About this Mac"), insert your OS X DVD into your Mac, and restart the computer.

  • As the computer boots back up, after you hear the chime sound, hold down the "Option" key. This will present you with the option of booting your computer from the hard disk, or the DVD you inserted.
  • Once everything finishes loading, click Utilities at the top of your screen, and then open "Disk Utility". Select your hard drive from the list on the left, click the "Erase" tab at the top. Choose "Mac OS Extended (Journaled)" as the "Format" option, and then click "Security Options" near the bottom.
  • This will present you with various levels of erasing, ranging from "Zero Out" to "35-Pass", which work like they sound. "35-Pass" takes the longest and is the most secure, "Zero Out" is the quickest and offers medium security. Once you've selected your options, click "Erase" to start the process.
  • If you're going to sell the computer, once the erase is finished, follow the prompts to reinstall the operating system for the next user. If you're planning on discontinuing use of the computer and either throwing it away or recycling it, your work is done.

If you're using OS X 10.7 or later, Apple no longer offers operating system discs, and many systems that launched with these operating systems don't even have disc slots. But, don't worry, you can still erase your drive.

  • First, restart the computer and hold down the "Option" key as the screen turns white. There should be a "Recovery" partition listed next to the standard OS install. Use the arrow keys to select the recovery, and hit enter.
  • You will be asked to choose a language, and then will be presented with the OS X Utilities menu. From here, choose "Disk Utility", select your hard drive from the list on the left, and then click on the "Erase" tab at the top.
  • If your computer has an SSD (solid-state drive), "Security Options" might be grayed out. If it is, continue on with the process by choosing "Mac OS Extended (Journaled)" under "Format" and clicking "Erase". If it isn't, then follow the steps above to choose your erasure level.
  • Once the erase is finished, if "Security Options" was grayed out, you can feel free to do it again or not. If not, follow the prompts to either reinstall OS X for the next user, or shut down the computer if you're not going to use it again.

If you use a Windows 7 computer, the process is a little more convoluted. While Microsoft does offer software to format your hard drive, it doesn't offer anything like the "35-Pass" option that Apple does, so you'll need to use third-party programs to achieve this. We recommend using Hardwipe for this task, but Darik's Boot and Nuke is also a good option. Both of these programs will allow you to wipe data more thoroughly than just Windows 7 could, and instructions are available on their respective sites.

If you're a Windows 8 user, you'll be happy to see that Microsoft finally got the memo, and it's much easier to wipe the drive in the latest iteration of Windows.

  • You can see detailed instructions here, but to fully reset your Windows 8 PC, go to "Settings", then "Change PC settings". Here, click "General" and then "Remove everything and reinstall Windows".
  • Microsoft notes, "You'll be prompted to choose whether you want to erase data quickly or thoroughly. If you choose to erase data quickly, some data might be recoverable using special software. If you choose to erase data thoroughly, this will take longer but it makes recovering data far less likely."

If you're a bit more serious about your data, you can either physically destroy the hard drive to prevent its data from being read by another computer, or you can send your hard drive off to a company that specializes in hard drive destruction. If you opt for the former, you can follow a wonderful guide here that explains a DIY method to physically prevent the data on a hard drive from ever being recovered. If you decide on the latter, companies like Blancco or Shred-it offer hard drive destruction for those seriously interested in destroying their data for good.

Whether you decide to to erase your hard drive with software, destroy it yourself, or send it off to be destroyed, taking care of your personal data is one of the most important responsibilities of a computer owner. Even if you're just putting your old computer in your closet to gather dust, you can't be too careful.

Photo: alx_chief