How to Wipe Personal Data From Cell Phones and PCs

Written By Alla Levin
December 27, 2007

How to Wipe Personal Data From Cell Phones and PCs

Before you recycle your old computer, cell phone, or smartphone, wipe it clean of data. If you don’t, your personal life could be laid bare. Worse, you could become a victim of identity theft. But wiping your device clean of data may be more complicated than you think. Here are details about how to do it for cell phones and PCs.

Cleaning up cell phones and smartphonesHow to Wipe Personal Data From Cell Phones and PCs (2)

With cell phones and smartphones like BlackBerries, you need to worry about more than your data — ensure that your account has been terminated. If not, others can make phone calls from your device, and you’ll be footing the bill.

So double-check with your carrier that the account has been terminated before you donate or sell your phone. If you’ve switched your account over to a new device and deactivated the old machine on that account, check your bill carefully to ensure the old phone isn’t somehow still using that account.

Next, erase all your stored information, including your phone book, any stored incoming or outgoing text messages, and memory of incoming and outgoing phone numbers, e-mails, etc.

You can do this manually, one by one, of course, but if you do, there’s a good chance you might miss some. And it can also be exceedingly time-consuming. So check your phone’s manual for how to do a complete reset. A reset will wipe your phone off data and restore it to its factory settings.

A superb resource for resetting cell phone data is put together by ReCellular, which buys, recycles, and refurbishes wireless devices.

Its cell phone data eraser site gives detailed instructions on erasing data from many different makes and models of cell phones. Just choose your make and model, and you’ll be able to download specific instructions for resetting it.

Wiping PCs

Wiping PCs

Just deleting files isn’t good enough when you are going to recycle your computer. It’s pretty simple for anyone to restore those deleted files, even if they’re no longer in the Recycle Bin.

Deleting files and reformatting your hard disk won’t do the trick. Someone knowledgeable enough and dedicated to the task can restore your files, even from a reformatted disk.

Think there’s nothing to worry about? You couldn’t be more wrong.

In 2003, two graduate students at MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science bought 158 used hard disks on eBay and other places. From those hard disks, they discovered 5,000 credit card numbers, personal and corporate financial records, medical records, and personal e-mails.

Only 12 of the 158 hard disks had been adequately cleaned of their data.

Approximately 60% of the hard drives had been reformatted, and about 45% had no files on them (the drives couldn’t even be mounted on a computer) — yet the students could still recover data from them, using a variety of special tools.

What can you do? Get a disk-wiping program that meets the U.S. Department of Defense’s standards for disk sanitation.

These programs will overwrite your entire hard disk with data multiple times, ensuring the original data can’t be retrieved. If you use them, be patient because wiping the hard disk can take several hours.

Computerworld features editor Valerie Potter vouches for the free Darik’s Boot and Nuke, which, unlike some competing programs, worked smoothly on the old Windows 98 machine that she recently put out to pasture.

Download the software, creating a boot disk that wipes everything on the hard drive. It can be used with floppy disks (remember those?), USB flash drives, CDs, and DVDs. A similar program that has gotten good reviews is Eraser.

If you’ve got a Mac, you can use Apple’s built-in Disk Utility or download a third-party application like Mireth Technology’s ShredIt X 5.8 ($25, free trial), which lets you shred single files as well as wipe your local hard drive, network hard drives, and CD-RWs.

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