January 7, 2015

Share Everywhere

Data Privacy Tip: How to Recycle Your Electronics

How to Clear Your Data from an Old Device

Maybe the holidays were especially good to you this year, and a shiny new tech gadget was part of your gift mix. Or perhaps you just decided that 2015 was the year you’d finally replace that long-sputtering laptop, smartphone or tablet.

Although you’re ready to load up that new tech with fresh apps, set aside just a little more time with your old device to do a data wipe.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, discarded hard drives that haven’t been wiped or overwritten can be a treasure chest for identity thieves. Even if you remove old documents, a drive could have plenty of information that identity thieves can use, such as passwords, account numbers, tax returns, medical information and browser history. A thief can piece together those components, creating a profile to pose as you online and in person.

How to Recycle Electronics

Here are three steps to make sure your old technology is ready for donation or recycling:

1. Back up your data: This seems like an intuitive first step, but it’s sometimes overlooked until it’s too late. Keep in mind that your goal is to wipe the hard drive so that no trace of your information remains — no photos, wireless passwords, browser bookmarks, nothing. Backing up data is a simple step you can take to prevent identity theft. But first, figure out what you want to save, and then save it on an external drive or through a backup service.

2. Don’t settle for an easy delete: Much like throwing old bills in the garbage doesn’t destroy the information, moving documents and data to your device’s trash doesn’t actually delete that data forever. A simple reformat of the hard disk won’t scrub all the data, either. The file will remain on the disk until another file is created over it, and even then, it may be possible to recover the data with a program called an “undelete utility.” You need the electronic equivalent of a shredder.

Fortunately, free programs like Eraser or CCleaner can do the job. Download the latest version (avoid beta versions) and install it on your old device. Then run the program and you’ll be able to select what to delete. PC Advisor has a good step-by-step guide with screen captures to lead you through the process. When it comes to data privacy, do your due diligence to make sure your personal information is erased for good.

3. Double-check a data wipe on a traded-in smartphone. When you’re upgrading to a new phone or device with a provider like Verizon, AT&T or T-Mobile, you can often trade in your older device for a certain amount of credit or even cash. Staff members have been trained in how to do a data wipe, and they’ll usually show you the wipe as it’s in progress and then completed. Be diligent about observing this process, and then ask to double-check the erasure once it’s done. The device should be reset to factory settings and contain no data at all (not even your phone number).

If you take the device to an electronic shredding facility instead, you should be able to watch your tech get physically destroyed — if the company rep balks, then go someplace else. Remember, your smartphone is filled with large amounts of personal data. Privacy is your number one concern and it’s not worth taking even the smallest risk.

There are many great uses for your older technology, like donating laptops and smartphones to nonprofit organizations, or recycling old devices so they don’t end up in a landfill. But first, be sure to do a data wipe to ensure your good intentions aren’t opening you up to security threats.

Ready to start exploring your new device? Be sure to read our post on how to set up your device properly.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Ervins Strauhmanis.

Heidi Daitch

Chief Strategy Officer at IdentityForce
Heidi is a busy working mom who juggles many of the same responsibilities and challenges at home and at work - a long list of things to do and not enough time to do everything. With so little time, Heidi tries hard to find simple, but effective strategies to save time for what’s really important – spending time with her family.