Article first published as Discarded Computers Reveal Your Secrets on Technorati.
Discarded hard drives often contain valuable data, including credit card and banking information, medical records and passwords. The data is being harvested for identity theft, fraud and even blackmail.
Old computer parts, including hard drives with data intact, are shipped overseas and dumped in cash-strapped developing countries with lenient or non-existent environmental laws.
Criminal organizations will pay up to $200 USD for old disks with data intact from workers who scour landfills brimming with dumped e waste from the US and other prosperous countries.
According to David Brown, manager of Tech Guys Computer Service in California, most people don't consider what happens to their data after the computer becomes obsolete. "We remove confidential information from donated machines every day," he said.
How can you be sure your private information is safe when you retire your old computer?
If you plan to donate the computer intact you should use a wiping program like the free 'Dariks Boot And Nuke'. DBAN is a Linux based system which boots off a floppy, cd or usb. It overwrites the old bits and bytes with random numbers several times over, assuring complete destruction of data.
If you don't plan to reuse the computer, pull out the hard drive (its usually just two screws) and physically destroy it. Perhaps the easiest way is to beat it with a hammer, or even a rock. You can drive a few nails through it for extra satisfaction.
Always ask for your old hard drive back when you take your computer to the shop for an upgrade. Donate your used machine to a reputable e-recycling shop which has earned a certification through the EPA for safely recycling and managing used electronics.
You can find a list of companies who have received this EPA approval by visiting the websites of 'R2 Solutions' or 'e-stewards'.
Protecting your personal information involves more than just using an anti-virus program and choosing secure passwords. You need to ensure it is safe from prying eyes even after the computer has been retired and has passed out of your control.