Scrubbing Clean Old Electronic Devices

School Nutrition readers gained valuable advice about reducing their vulnerabilities to cybercrime in “Password Protected?” (December 2013). But author Mark Ward, Sr., PhD, emphasizes that security steps must be taken even when you’re getting rid of your old and obsolete computers, laptops, mobile phones and other devices. After all, such devices have hard drives that may store everything from your address book to your tax returns.

Even when you delete a file, the data itself remains on the drive; only the links for reassembling the data have been deleted. Unless the data itself is wiped clean, anyone who acquires your old computer can reconstruct the files by using a recovery program.

So, what should you do to protect yourself from enterprising dumpster divers? To wipe your hard drive, first copy any files you wish to keep onto the new computer or to an external hard drive. Then, obtain a utility program for cleaning hard drives; you can purchase these from a computer store or find them on the Internet. In order for your data to be permanently wiped, the utility program must overwrite your hard drive multiple times, rather than only once. The “low-tech” solution, of course, is to remove the drive from the old computer and physically destroy it—with a hammer!

Mobile devices also hold personal information—e-mails, voicemails, text messages, address books, account numbers, passwords—that should be removed before the units are discarded. After transferring the data to a new device, the information on the old device can often be deleted with a “factory reset” that clears all memory and restores the unit to its just-from-the-factory condition.

Along with the device’s internal memory, additional memory is provided by external SIM and SD cards. Both of these should be removed before the device is discarded. The Subscriber Identity Module card stores information that identifies you as a user of your cell phone network, while the Secure Digital card stores the pictures and videos you’ve taken and the songs you’ve downloaded.

Finally, delete all your mobile apps from the device. These apps are free software you’ve downloaded to run programs that can, for example, organize your personal calendar or find the nearest flower shop. To perform their functions, these apps necessarily store data about you, your preferences, your whereabouts and your personal contacts. Once you’ve cleared the internal memory, deleted your apps and removed the SIM and SD cards, check the unit one last time to ensure your personal information is gone.

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