Getting Rid of an Old Hard Drive

Sylvia from New York, NY writes “I wanted to get rid of an old Dell computer with Windows XP, but not with the hard drive in it. I was able to remove the hard drive and put it in the sink with hot water for abt 20 minutes. Then with a screw driver I pulled it apart and let the water run inside. I then put it in a plastic bag and tied it up tight and threw it in a basket on the street. Do you agree that I got rid of what was on my hard drive?”

Hi, Sylvia.  Thanks for the great question.

I think that you forgot running a jackhammer on it, giving it to a rabid pit bull and dropping a hydrogen bomb on it.

All kidding aside, no, I don’t think that you destroyed the data on the plates. 

The plates are designed to be tough and to survive a fair amount of abuse.  Simply disassembling it and giving it a bath is probably not enough.  I’ve actually seen data retrieved from hard drives that have been subjected to much harder abuse than that, such as being beaten with a hammer.  That’s the bad news.

The good news is that you really don’t have to resort to such extreme measures to eliminate the data on an old hard drive.  When you delete something from a hard drive, it’s not really gone until you write over it.  Your computer simply marks it as data that CAN be overwritten. 

Using a program such as Diskwipe or Fileshredder will actually overwrite every bit of data on your disc.  Multiple times.  For instance, the US Air Force, which is one of the algorithms used by Discwipe, overwrites your entire disc three times with either ones or zeroes.  Really, overwriting is the only way to insure that your data is safe.  

Also, throwing your disc drive into a trash bag on the street is not a recommended disposal method once you remove the data.  The disc drive contains heavy metals such as mercury, which leach into our groundwater when they’re disposed of in a landfill.  So please… in the future when you dispose of a hard drive, find out which of your local retailers offers safe disposal of electronics like this.

Hope that this helps!

Randal Schaffer

7 thoughts on “Getting Rid of an Old Hard Drive

  1. What if my old computer won’t even open up windows, then what can I do before I get rid of it? I’ve been keeping it around for years because I don’t know how to get rid of the information on the hard drive.

  2. doesn’t formatting an old hard drive erase it. i’ve done that with two old hard drives and bought kits to use them as backup. seems to be working

  3. I also have an old computer that won’t even turn on but I’m afraid to dispose of it because of the data that is still on it. What can I do to make my information safe?

  4. Glenn, formatting a hard drive does NOT erase the data on it. When a drive is formatted, it merely removes a “switch” that tells the data to show itself to the user, and adds a switch that tells the operating system it’s okay to write new data to that area. If you were to format a drive then dispose of it, someone simply needs to re-activate the “show” switch and they have all your old data. If a drive won’t spin up or a system won’t boot, physical destruction is usually the only method left. If you have a drill, a few holes through it works well. The idea is to destroy the actual platters inside the drive. If you destroy the case and the circuit board, someone can simply pull out the platters and put them in another case. Also, keep in mind that the level of effort you put into destroying the drive needs to directly relate to the sensitive nature of the data on the drive. Although they might mean the world to you, not too many data thieves are going to invest the time and effort to recover the family dogs puppy pictures. If the drive contains personal information such as Social Security numbers, tax returns, checking account information and things like that…put in the effort to make sure it doesn’t get into the wrong hands.

    Hope that helped!

  5. I drive nails through mine and/or use a drill press. Alternatively, my local trash disposal has a few days of the year that they will take them and shred them into silver dollar sized pieces and dispose of them properly.

  6. I actually disassemble the old hard drive, remove the disk,(keep the magnets, they are super strong) and used a plumber propane torch on them in my fireplace. It worked. All my secrets got deleted for good. Cheap also.

  7. I second the thought that, in many cases, you cannot run an overwrite program on a “dead” computer. Best thing to do is to remove the entire hard drive, and clean it well with solvent. It makes a nifty paperweight …..

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