An annual rite of the season, spring cleaning is a time to clean up, clean out, and throw away old junk. But what about your digital devices? Computers and cell phones can accumulate forgotten data and need periodic tidying. While you’re scrubbing and sprucing up your house, why not use the same opportunity to cleanse your cyber clutter?
How many old computers do you have in storage? How many old USB flash drives are in a drawer gathering dust? Chances are valuable information still exists on these devices. Take the opportunity to sell, trade, give away, or destroy these devices.
STOP – Preparing to get rid of an electronic device requires some preparation. Obviously, sensitive data on a computer or phone should be deleted before giving it away, but there is a right way and a wrong way to permanently delete data. Some people might know that a quick way to delete all the data on a hard drive is to format it. However, formatting a hard drive does NOT erase the contents of the drive! If you format a hard drive on a Windows or Mac computer and then try to access the data, the drive will appear empty. As far as the computer knows, it is empty — but the data is still there, just hidden and it can be discovered and retrieved by a professional.
The job of a digital forensic investigator is to recover deleted data from computers, flash drives and phones using special software tools. Of course, these software tools are also available to bad guys who want to grab your personal information in order to steal your identity.
When I teach forensic investigation classes, I find used computers for students to practice on. We typically buy used computers, hard drives, phones, and USB flash drives from eBay for use in the classroom. It is unbelievable the kind of stuff we find — tax returns, medical records, banking information, passwords, Social Security numbers, email, and pictures — lots of pictures. Sometimes pictures that we’re pretty sure were never intended to be seen by anyone other than the people in the picture (use your imagination).
There are many software packages that will help you “digitally shred” your sensitive information before you sell the device. These tools completely nuke your data so be careful when you use them and make sure you don’t need the files. Look for features like “Wipe,” “Shred” or “Overwrite.” You may already have this software. Many computers come with antivirus security products that have this feature built in.
For more tips on decluttering your digital life, check out this YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qvBecNUUeE&t=3s.
You can also meet us at Community Shred Day at Kennedy Recreation Center on May 13 from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Free giveaways!
Chris Sorensen has been in the IT industry for over 30 years and is currently a cyber-security specialist for a fortune 10 company. In his spare time, he enjoys helping family and friends stay safe and secure on the Internet with tips and techniques delivered in a fun, non-technical style. Readers are welcomed to send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.