Protect Data when Disposing of a Computer – 1 of 2

How do I get rid of a computer but keep my private data private?

This is a simple question that I’m often asked by my computer support clients. Pity the answer isn’t as simple. In fact, it can be complicated – technically and/or financially.

If the drive is in situ in a complete computer and you wish to dispose of it as a working machine then you have to clean the private stuff off it by deleting it and then ensuring that the deleted data can not then be undeleted. I will be covering the principles of this in next week’s blog.

If the drive is already out of the machine and/or if the main intention is safe and secure disposal of the computer (without expecting the computer to continue to function) then it may be simplest just to keep the drive (as this is the only part of the computer that stores any of your private information) and dispose of the the rest of the machine without worrying about data security.

This strategy also has the advantage that the retained drive can be viewed as a backup of your data at the time you disposed of the machine. In theory, you should be able to read any data on the drive, even though you no longer have the computer it came from. In practice, I have found that hard drives that are not used for a length of time can fail to “spin up” when you try to read them – see this blog on Long Term Data Retention.

2.5 inch drive enclosure
2.5 inch drive enclosure – you can’t tell from the outside whether it is SATA or IDE (or both)
To try to read a drive that has been separated from its computer, you just need an external drive enclosure from somewhere like PC World, Maplin, or Amazon. This is a box into which the drive fits and which includes the electronics to allow the drive (in its new box) to be externally connected to another computer via a USB cable. In fact, all old drives can be fitted into enclosures this way and used, for instance, as backup drives. If possible, take the drive with you when going to buy such an enclosure as there are two questions that have to be answered correctly if you are to get the right enclosure:

  • Is this a 2.5 inch drive or a 3.5 inch drive? (in practice, laptop drives are 2.5 inch and desktop drives 3.5 inch)
  • Is it a SATA drive or an IDE drive? (if the computer is newer than about four years it’s likely to be SATA)

3 1/2 inch drive enclosure
3.5 inch drive enclosure – note that 3.5 inch enclosures have their own power supply
In practice, keeping old drives to use as backup drives in this way is not as useful as it used to be as the enclosures cost about £15 and the drive (since it is likely to be 2-5 years old) is probably quite small by today’s standards and might also be getting to the age at which the chances of it failing are starting to increase rapidly. If your main priority is getting a backup drive then it would probably be better to start from scratch and buy a new external drive for £45-£80. See this blog on External Backup Drives.

The conclusion from all this is that it’s worth retaining a drive from an old computer as this is a simple and secure method of (non)disposal. You also know that there’s a chance of reading it at a future date if you need to get some data off it.

The problem for a “normal” user is “how do you get the drive out of the computer”?

3.5 inch SATA drive
3.5 inch SATA drive
If it’s a desktop computer then there will be screws on the case of the main system unit that retain one or both of the side covers. After removing the cover(s), just look for a metal rectangular box similar to that captioned here as “3.5 inch SATA drive”. The precise method of removal varies between models of computer and varies between being “simple” to remove and “well nigh impossible: how on earth did they put this thing together?” The good news, of course, is that you’re probably not bothered about breaking anything as you are probably not passing this computer on to anyone as a potentially working machine.

2.5 inch IDE drive
2.5 inch IDE drive
If it’s a laptop computer then you are hoping to find one, two, or four screws on the bottom of the laptop that either retain a plate (the removal of which will reveal the hard drive), or which retain the drive itself (the removal of which allows the drive to be slid out from either the left or right edge of the laptop).

2.5 inch SATA drive
2.5 inch SATA drive – it is the connectors at the edge that differentiate it from an IDE drive
If you are unlucky, there are either no such screws or you can’t identify them. In that case, you will need to remove pretty well all of the many screws on the underside of the laptop in the hope that you can get the case apart and then remove the drive (which will be a 2.5 inch drive as shown). I strongly advise against pulling a laptop computer apart if you are hoping to keep the machine alive for another owner.

Next week I will look at the options for keeping your data safe when disposing of a computer with the drive left in situ.