How To Erase Data from an Old Computer or Phone

Ah, the joy and excitement of a new computer or cell phone. Shiny, new, pristine – a blank slate on which you will inscribe your personality and interests, on which you will create and communicate and learn and play, and on which you will put a lot of personal information. Processes will run faster, things will download more quickly, and you are excited to get started.

But wait.

What about your old computer or phone?  What do you do with them?

We’ve covered your options for disposing of your old electronics in the past, but today I’d like to talk a bit about what you need to do to protect your identity when you dispose of an old laptop or cellphone.

Identity theft is a global issue, and it’s a very, very big problem. Of course you know to shred bank statements, credit card offers, and tax returns over seven years old. You may even be quite careful about giving out your phone number, email address, or social security information. Even with all the precautions you take, it can be very easy for an identity thief to steal your information from an old computer or phone.

The reason for this is that your old gadgets contain a great deal of personally identifiable information, or PII. For every time you’ve sent an email, accessed mobile banking, or shopped on your phone or laptop, that information is most likely still accessible on your old device. Before you let it out of your hands, you need to wipe it clean of all your information.

How (Not) to Erase the Data

Simply moving your files into the Recycle Bin and then emptying it won’t remove your information from your device. Deleting a file doesn’t remove it from your system; deleting a file only removes the reference for that file from the master file table. Data left behind might include login credentials, website passwords cached by your web browser, or passwords stored for other applications. This type of information can be recovered even if Windows won’t boot.

The same goes for your cell phone. Restoring a phone to factory settings won’t erase your personal data.

Erasing a Computer Hard Drive

Even though you can manually erase data from a computer by going through each and every personal document and file, web browser files, and email messages and running them through a digital shredding program such as File Shredder, this is time-consuming and there is a very real possibility you can miss something. A better option is to completely wipe the hard drive.

Completely and permanently deleting the contents of a computer hard drive is the only way to ensure the data is not recoverable. There are a number of free utilities available that make this action easy, including Active@ KillDisk – Hard Drive Eraser, which adheres to United States Department of Defense standards (DoD 5220.22M)for hard disk data removal. Once you’ve erased the hard drive you can dispose of it, or if the computer will be used again, you can reinstall Windows.

Erasing the Data on a Cell Phone

Wiping a cell phone is a bit trickier, due in part to the various operating systems available out there.

The basics of wiping a phone are pretty much the same regardless of the operating system you have, so let’s start there.

  1. Remove your SIM card.
  2. Remove your micro SD card.
  3. Erase and format your SD card, if you must include it with the phone. Your Settings app can help you to do this.

Once you’ve done these things, the only thing left is the phone’s internal storage. Both iOS and Android have different methods to erase this storage. The method you use will be dependent on your phone model and operating system. If you don’t know how to erase this internal storage, a web search for your particular model should turn up the steps you need to take.

Be aware, however, that even with all of these precautions, a tech forensics company may still be able to recover data from a phone. It follows that if forensics can do it, so can someone intent on recovering data for less-than-honest purposes. Because of the extreme portability of cell phones, your best option for securing that data may just be destruction of the device.

destroy old device

For all of the convenience that technology provides us in our daily life, we’d still do well to enjoy our new gadgets with a side of caution. Once personally identifiable information takes up residence on our laptop, tablet, or phone, it makes us more vulnerable to those individuals out there who seek to exploit that information. Cybercrime is rarely personal; rather, it’s a crime of opportunity. Making that opportunity a little more difficult should be your goal. If you don’t feel comfortable with erasing your data yourself, seek out a trustworthy source to help you accomplish this. Ultimately, however, the security of your information is a responsibility that is uniquely your own.

Remember: once you’ve removed the data from your old device, you can enjoy your new one just a bit more.