Simply deleting data from computers, tablets, phones, and other devices doesn’t remove it. The space occupied by the “deleted” information is simply marked as being available for reuse when needed. Until or unless that old data is overwritten or otherwise destroyed, it can be recovered, possibly by a cybercriminal with bad intentions.
The act of permanently removing or destroying data stored on a device is often referred to as sanitization. How you sanitize a device depends on the device and the type(s) of storage media it utilizes.
Some devices that store sensitive data
In addition to computers, tablets, and phones, other devices may need to be sanitized before they are donated, sold, or otherwise disposed of. They include peripheral devices like printers, USB storage devices, and external hard drives. Digital cameras and media players may also require sanitization. Others may be overlooked, including children’s toys that are equipped with microphones and/or cameras along with some gaming consoles. Smart home devices may be storing credentials that allow them to automatically connect to internal networks.
The most common sanitization methods
For PCs and laptops, wiping the drive and overwriting it with zeros and meaningless data is a secure sanitization technique that can be easily accomplished using an app. If you intend to sell or donate a computer or give it to a family member, this is the way to go because it does not permanently disable the device. For home use, DBAN is a free, open-source option available for download at dban.org. The DBAN application will completely wipe out all data including personal files, programs, and even operating systems. Reload the operating system and you have a clean computer with no bloatware or sensitive data. DBAN is just one of many applications available to sanitize a PC. These applications can also be used to sanitize USB storage devices.
User data stored on phones and tablets can be wiped away by performing a factory reset. This will return the device to its original factory configuration and wipe out user settings. Because different devices have different reset procedures, you may need to refer to the manual, contact your service provider, or search online for instructions. Keep in mind that many newer devices don’t allow users to access internal memory chips or SIM cards. If you cannot access and remove this internal storage media, ask your service provider for help to ensure that all of your sensitive data has been removed if you are selling, donating, or otherwise disposing of a phone or tablet.
Peripherals, like printers, along with digital cameras, media players, smart devices, and gaming consoles may have hard factory reset options available that will wipe away stored settings, but any internal drives or memory cards should also be fully sanitized. Finding out how to accomplish this may require some research. If that’s not practical or possible, it may be best to destroy the storage media as described below. The same applies when disposing of storage media from smart devices and toys with network connectivity capability or audio/video functionality.
Device or media destruction
In some instances, physical destruction of storage media is the best way to ensure that information stored thereon can never be retrieved. If you can’t remove the media from the device, destroying the entire device may be your only option.
Beginning with the simplest example, a good document shredder is all you need to destroy CDs and DVDs. Just check the specifications to make sure your shredder is capable of doing the job without being damaged. SD cards can also be good candidates for the shredder. Crushing this type of media is also an option. Put on some safety glasses and beat it into submission with a hammer.
For hard drives that, for whatever reason, cannot be sanitized using an app, a DIY alternative is to drive nails into them or drill holes through them. Wear your safety glasses and gloves and put as many holes in the drive as possible. This is a method recommended by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Simply deleting stored data before disposing of a device isn’t enough to keep it from being retrieved and used by a hacker. Fortunately, free, easy-to-use applications are readily available to help you effectively sanitize your PC or laptop before getting rid of it. Your service provider should be willing and able to assist you with sanitizing your old smartphone and verifying that all of your information has been removed prior to disposal. For other devices, some research may be required to ensure that you do all that is needed to wipe them clean. If all else fails, it may be necessary for you to destroy old devices or storage media. Given the potential consequences associated with leaving sensitive data on a device that ends up falling into the wrong hands, it’ll be worth the effort.
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