Can You Leave The OS Intact While Wiping The Hard Disk of Data?Now what? Your computer needs to be replaced, but you know that there people out there who would love to get their hands on the data you have saved on your old hard disk. Sadly, this is a problem that we will all be subjected to at some point, whether it’s due to our computer’s age or the desire to replace an older personal computer with a newer toy. In replacing our older systems, however, there is no need to fear, because the way to keep your information out of the hands of strangers is actually fairly simple. You just have to destroy the hard disk and make it unusable. One of the simplest tricks — and one that I have used — is to pound a screwdriver through the unit using a hammer.

However, you can’t use this simple trick if you are one of the many who want to sell or donate your older unit. If this is your intent, you will want to clear the hard drive of any personal information / data that you have stored there. The procedure that you choose to use to achieve this goal will most likely depend on the type of information you have stored on your computer and how sensitive the information is. For example, if you store your tax returns and file them via electronic means, you know that you don’t want these documents to become public. You should also be concerned about any credit card information, social security numbers, dates of birth, birth locations, phone numbers, or addresses you may have stored; any or all of these could cause you a real migraine if they fell into the wrong hands. But what about those individuals who only have email addresses and other non-personal information stored on their system?

I only have non-personal information or email addresses stored on my system. How do I get rid of this stuff?

First off, it is unlikely that anyone reading this fits into this category since you are currently surfing the Web and have therefore left behind a trail of sites you have visited. These sites are recorded in the hard drive, leaving a history of files that are stored in the cache memory. If you don’t think this applies to you, the next reason this probably won’t work for you is that, if you have installed any personal software, you were most likely required to enter a registration or serial number. This would be applicable to anyone who has stored applications on their computer system itself rather than storing them on the cloud. The bottom line is that there is much more information stored on your computer than you might think.

However, if you are convinced that your system contains no personal information that could come back to bite you in the rear later, here are few programs that you can try.

  • Revo Uninstaller: To uninstall software programs from your computer, I would recommend trying Revo Uninstaller. Revo is a free download that will completely remove all traces of a software program from your system. In addition, Revo Uninstaller has additional tools that will enable you to clean up your browsing history as well as tools that will remove files and documents created using Microsoft Office.
  • CCleaner: Another free program that will remove a lot of the gunk and junk is CCleaner. This software has been around for years and has become a staple in any good geek’s arsenal of software products. It will remove all of the leftovers left behind on a system, including the junk that builds up over time in the Windows registry.
  • Remove all user accounts except Administrator: This process for deleting user accounts off of a Windows system will remove all of the settings you have previously set up on your personal computer. Microsoft has set up a website that describes the procedure for various operating systems. If you follow these instructions exactly, as described, all should be OK when you are done performing the task. Here’s how to delete user accounts by Microsoft.
  • Turn off system files: I would also recommend turning off system files such as Restore, Paging File, and Hibernation (if used) to delete any personal information that could be stored on your system.

The problem with using this type of an approach is that there is still the possibility of leaving behind some personal information that the next owner can access. Sadly, there is no 100% guaranteed way to clean off a Windows system while attempting to leave Windows intact. In other words, I believe that the only true way to clean a personal computer system is to wipe the drive and reinstall the operating system. Notice I said operating system versus a reinstall of Windows. The reason I say this is because some of you who read this may not be able to find your Windows CD, DVD, or other media you were supposed to make when you bought your PC. This latter is often the case since it is not uncommon for new computers to arrive with no installation disks, making it the responsibility of the new owner to make their own restore disks. There is a possibility that the information you need to make your own restore disk is still on your computer. This information will allow you to make your own recovery disk, including the OS (prior to cleaning the system of your old files).

In order to completely clean a hard disk and install a clean copy of the operating system, I would recommend you use Darik’s Boot and Nuke for CD or DVD. This free program will completely erase your hard drive so that a clean copy of the OS can be installed. When you use this program, no personal information will be left behind on the hard disk.

I can’t find my Windows disks and I can’t locate any recovery options on my PC. What do I do now?

If this is where you find yourself, you may wish to leave the hard disk clean (without an OS), or you may wish to install one of the free copies of Linux that is available at numerous sites on the Internet.

Comments, as always, are welcome.

CC licensed Flickr photo above shared by Dread Pirate Jeff