Remains of the Data - Protect Your Identity

By: Wilfred Walter

In the wrong hands, it's just as easy for a thief to recover data off your old, discarded hard drive as it is to unravel and read a crumpled piece of paper that you've tossed in the garbage. Geek savvy crooks know just how to access the dark corners of your trusty old computer and this can place your identity at risk.

Shredding paper, smashing up CDs, DVDs or USB flash drives that contain any sort of personal or business information is an obvious and simple step to take when discarding any media. But what do you do with your hard drive once you decide to replace it?

Most of your stored data may be trivial or of no concern. No one usually cares very much about your photos, old to-do lists or the kid's video games. But if your hard drive stores archived email, financial documents, tax records, passwords, account numbers or medical records, then don't just give it away. Be aware that your personal information can be easily retrieved and used to hijack your identity.

Once a fraudster has enough vital information, they may attempt to transfer your bank accounts, change billing addresses, or apply for new credit cards and often, with surprising success. So it's more important than ever that you erase or destroy your obsolete hard drive. But how?

There isn't a portable shredder on the market that you can run your old hard drive through. And just erasing all important files won't do the trick. There are programs that will un-erase these files and bring them right back.

There are options that promise to cleanse a disk drive using wiping software. There are also destruction services and manufacturers' recycling programs. But what many PC owners don't realize, according to some experts, is that many of these options are not 100% reliable.

Your hard drive maintains an index of files used to organise the data on your computer by telling it where things are stored. When you install any file - especially a large one - the information for that file is scattered around the hard drive in bits and pieces. When you request to open the file, the hard drive checks the index first and then it gathers the fragmented pieces and reconstructs them to open the file.

If you later delete the same file, the links between the index and the file disappear telling your system that the file is no longer needed. But the deleted file actually remains on your computer. Even if you've taken care to cleanse and overwrite your drive, remnants of data will still exist.

If you have your drive overwritten, you are replacing previously stored data with a predetermined pattern of gibberish. You can find countless brands of software that claim a lofty standard of data erasure and they all work on the same premise of overwriting the drive with bad data. The goal is to effectively render the good data unrecoverable. If you go this route, it's time consuming but smart to overwrite your disk several times for greater protection.

Here's the Problem:

Your computer's operating system may tell you that the data is gone, but the pattern of 1's and 0's will still be on your machine - it's just been overwritten. Skilful hackers can decode this information back into human, readable language. It may only take a modestly resourceful cyber crook with a good shareware program to be able to recover your personal information.

Taking the step of formatting the drive helps to remove patterns but, many format programs still cannot erase the full pattern, only its file system pointer chain. Some commercial devices are available that will thoroughly remove any trace of patterns that could be decoded into information. They perform a low-level format and this should permanently erase the data. Nonetheless, recovery measures are sometimes still possible.

A low level format may not do the trick so you can consider a "degaussing" service. Degaussing is the technical term for de-magnetization and it is considered to be a more secure measure of data erasure. You'll often read warnings not to get a magnet near your hard drive for fear of losing your data. Degaussing is a process of placing a very strong magnet next to the hard drive so that it no longer holds any information. Still, the process may not purge the disk completely which means some remnants of information may remain recoverable.

Physical destruction is the most reliable method of all to guard against having your information and identity stolen from your old PC. If you've used the computer for some time or if you've been using it extensively for personal or business use, this is the way to go. And it can be a do-it-yourself project that can be kinda fun.

On the other hand, drives are designed to be robust and most can withstand being mishandled or even dropped, so you may not want to do the destruction yourself. After you unplug the computer wires, you'll need to remove any mounting screws and slide the hard drive out from the back of its casing. Use a hammer to smash the hard disk platters or even try an acetylene torch to complete the destruction.

If you don't have the tools or the inclination to do the job properly, you can always hire a hard drive destruction service. Just Google terms like "hard drive destruction service" or "clean out your hard disk" and you'll find a ton of information and resources that may lead you to a good service close to home.

If your data is confidential, it's worth the effort to ensure that it stays that way as a measure of identity protection. So before you leave that old clunky Pentium by the curb side, you should take some time to research your best alternative and then decide to save, sell, recycle or destroy that old PC or Notebook.

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