The threat of identity theft lurks behind every digital transaction and cyber handshake. You have to trust verified third party websites to encrypt your financial information. If you are careful, you use only secure connections and reliable websites. Smart computer users take care to leave no digital traces of important personal information. But all of that data stays on your hard drive.

The hard drive is the information storage device in all computers. Hard drives start as small as 4 gigabytes, like a USB stick, and scale up to many terabytes of data. The computer work you do gets saved to your hard drive, and stored until the next time you need it. The file names are now familiar: pdf, jpeg, doc, mp3, etc.

Any document you write, any email you send, and any file you download gets stored onto your hard drive. Your bank account, social security, address and phone numbers stays saved. You can find password logins to your email and social media services. There can be a whole mine of digital information stored on your computer’s hard drive. Identity thieves use this information as leverage to commit fraud. Even your social media persona is potential leverage against you when an identity thief holds your digital life in their hands.

Now, when your hard drive runs out of capacity or gets old, you will have to throw away or recycle your hard drive. This is a precarious position. Some people give their old hard drive to friends or family. That is dangerous. Other people sell their hard drive without properly erasing the contents, and this leaves them exposed to potential theft.

If you are disposing your old hard drive, you have to do more than “delete” your files. If you only move files to the recycling bin and empty the trash, the data is still recoverable with normal software. Manually deleting files through your desktop browser only removes the shortcuts to the files. But the files are still saved on the hard drive.

Secure Erase Or The Hammer?

Smashed Hard Drive

There are three things you can do when you are throwing away your hard drive to minimize identity theft. The most secure option is to overwrite the data with a secure erase program such as MediaTools Wipe. The program physically writes over the old data with new 1s and 0s multiple times. This makes data recovery impossible, and secures your hard drive from potential data theft. Be aware that a secure erase takes many hours to complete. You will have to factor this in when throwing away your drive.

A second option is to disassemble the components yourself. Open the hard drive (there are numerous how-to videos on youtube). You will need special miniscule screwdrivers to open the drive. Once you are inside, you can make sure to destroy the essential platter disk. The platter disk is where the data is written. As a tip, the very strong magnets in the hard drive are useful as repurposed tools.

Or, you can use a hammer to destroy your hard drive. Physically destroying a hard drive into bits and pieces will make data recovery impossible. A few good smacks to the internal components like the platter and the actuator will be enough. But be careful, flying elements can be dangerous. Here are a few tips on how to safely destroy your hard drive:

  • Disconnect all power sources to the hard drive
  • Remove any steel shielding material
  • Wear appropriate safety gear like gloves and protective goggles
  • Make sure to damage the disk surface
  • Make sure to damage the ports that connect the drive to a computer
  • Have some Office Space fun!

The Potential Problem

Many hard drives sold on the open market today still contain sensitive and recoverable data. A report from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) found that from over 200 hard drives purchases from auction, 48% of them still contained some of their original owner’s information. Of those drives, 11% had personal information that could be leveraged for identity theft or fraud. At least two drives contained bank statements, passport screenshots, and medical records.

Another study by Dr. Simson Garfinkel was conducted by purchasing 236 hard drives through eBay looking for internal data. Over 1000 hard drives are sold on eBay per day. The results from the study showed that:

  • Only 19% of the hard drives were wiped clean prior to the sale
  • 7 contained over 300 recoverable credit card numbers
  • An ATM drive containing 827 unique numbers
  • 1 hard drive from a medical center had 11,609 unique credit card numbers and patient information!

Disposal

As you can see, improperly disposed hard drives are a common occurrence. Make sure to always dispose of your hard drive correctly. Be careful to properly wipe your hard drive before you sell or donate it. You don’t want your personal data leaving your computer.

The Data Rescue Center in Livermore, CA has a hard drive recycling center. Whether you have an old drive you want to retire, or a failing drive you need to recover, you can send your hard drive to us. We run hard drive diagnostics for free, and can perform the data recovery if you desire.

Then, if you want to recycle your drive, we wipe the drive clean of data with our MediaTools Wipe software. We reuse the internal components of your hard drive in future data recoveries. Hard drive recycling keeps customer costs down, and helps the environment by reducing e-waste pollution. For further information, check out this blog on recycling your hard drive at the Data Rescue Center.