Personal computing

These days there's very little that can't be saved, downloaded or scanned onto our computers. As our society becomes increasingly paperless we are storing more of our private and personal data than ever on computer hard drives. This poses a problem when it comes to disposing of your broken or obsolete PC.

Crimes like identity theft have all made us aware of the importance of disposing of bank statements, credit cards etc. safely. Yet amazingly, a recent investigation by a computer forensics firm discovered that 40% of second-hand computers bought on eBay still had personal data on their hard drives. Even hard drives that were advertised as 'wiped' still contained data that was easily recoverable.

This is a frightening prospect when you have absolutely no idea whose hands your old PC could end up in. As well as identity theft, your personal data could be used for extortion, blackmail or even hacking into your savings and bank accounts.

Deleting your data

Before you even start thinking of erasing your hard drive the first thing you should do is back-up all of your data. No matter how old your PC is it should have a program for backing-up your computer built in. The next thing you need to decide is what kind of device you want to back-up your data onto.

Which device you choose really depends on how much data you are backing-up, but the most popular these days is an external hard drive. This is relatively cheap to buy and can be connected to your PC via its USB port. If you don't have much data to back-up then you could use a re-writable CD or, if your PC is really ancient, a disk.

Simply deleting your files and emptying the recycle bin on your PC does not actually remove them from your hard drive and they are easily recoverable with even the most basic data recovery software. Even formatting your disc will fail to remove your personal data from the hard drive.

There is a whole host of specialist software available for download which is capable of erasing your personal data. However, despite all the claims, just as you can download a program to erase your data, someone else could just as easily download a program and retrieve it.

According to our own computer experts, the most thorough way to erase your personal data is to use a Low Level Format tool or software. They can be downloaded online and are an extremely effective way of removing confidential data from your hard drive. But be warned - it is also a very slow process and can take up to ten hours to complete!

Hammer Time

For those technophobes out there - for whom the very idea of downloading and running software fills you with dread - this next part is for you. Forget about low level formats and data erasing, the safest (and most fun) way of destroying personal data on your hard drive is simple: destroy your hard drive!

Removing your hard drive is relatively simple:

  1. Disconnect your PC from any power source.

  2. Open up the exterior casing and locate the hard drive (it's usually connected to a flat, wide IDE cable).

  3. Undo any screws that secure the hard drive to its wire cage.

  4. Remove the hard drive.

Now before we proceed: have you backed-up your hard drive? If you haven't - this is your last chance before it's too late.

The next part is entirely up to you: you can smash it with hammer; bash it with an axe; or even run it over with a steam roller. It doesn't matter how you do it, just as long as your hard drive is reduced to tiny little pieces. Remember to wear protective goggles or wrap your hard drive in a towel to prevent being struck by flying plastic.

And after? It doesn't matter if you throw it in the bin, bury it in the garden or flush it down the loo - not even Harry Potter will be able to recover any personal data from your drive.

Old PCs never die

Now that you've dealt with the personal data on your hard drive, it is time to start thinking about the best way to dispose of your unwanted computer.

Because your PC contains a whole myriad of harmful substances (mercury, lead, arsenic - to name a few) it can no longer be put in your black wheely bin and buried as landfill. There should be a council run recycling centre somewhere near you and this is one possible destination to consider for your unwanted computer.

Something that you should be aware of though, is that many old PCs are shipped to the third world to be recycled. Some of the methods used to extract the precious materials inside your PC are not exactly environmentally sound and ironically defeat the whole object of having your PC recycled in the first place.

If your PC is still working, you could of course sell it second-hand on sites like eBay. Don't worry if you have removed the hard drive as they are relatively inexpensive for the recipient to replace.

But why not give your old PC away instead? Unfortunately, many charity shops are no longer able to accept donations of electrical equipment, but there are specialist charities such as Computer Aid International who will refurbish your old computer and send it to educational, health and non-profit organisations in developing countries. Or if you want to help someone a bit closer to home, why not donate it to a local youth club, school or give it away using sites such as Freecycle?