(I would like to preface this with a disclaimer: For one, this is off my business blog. Yes, I'm whoring the post because I feel it's important info to be shared and discussed. I will not post a link to it here, but it's on my profile.
Also, I apologize if this is missposted, but, again, it seemed the best place. If you disagree with the following, be my guest!
I started my company to guide and assist people with their understanding of technology, how it can help, and how it can hurt. If I seem particularly passionate about the following subject, it’s because I am.)
Before I start, this needs to be said: If you’re getting rid of a computer, erase everything.
* Log out of any and every account you own before getting rid of a machine. Clearing your browser’s History and Cache, as well.
* Reformat the hard drive multiple times. Or find a reputable tool to do so; I recommend a tool called DBAN.
* If you don’t know how, or are concerned, take the machine to a reputable repair shop (shameless plug: ME!). Ask questions. Ask – precisely – how will all the data be removed?
* If possible, remove the Hard Drive entirely, and keep it in your possession. (Again, ME!)
* Destroy previously-mentioned Hard Drive. Hammers, chisels, napalm, Semtex, electromagnetic shock... Go all Office Space on it. It's therapeutic.
* If you have an address sticker on the machine, scrape it off.
* Do not trust a non-profit donation center to erase the hard drive. I'll explain why in a minute.
Why, you might ask?
Say, for example, you have an aging computer in your home. It may take anywhere from two to five minutes to leave the Windows XP screen and see the Desktop with all your icons. * The once-white casing is now a lovely shade of mud, yellowed from either cigarette smoke or simply age. Grime collects along the edges, with smudges from food-encrusted fingers poking and prodding at the Eject button on the CD-R Burner. Perhaps the casing is cracked from moving (or, in the case of a laptop, a fall from a desk.) The ‘Intel Celeron D Inside‘ sticker might be half-peeling from curious fingertips (or children.)
People point and laugh when they see the machine. You simply shake your head when a Software Update cripples your computer for the better part of an hour.
Fed-up, you throw your tower out with the trash. Better yet, you donate it to a non-profit, willing to take electronic refuse off your hands. Who cares what's done to it afterward? And good riddance to that 20lb. behemoth on your desk, to be replaced with a shiny new machine. Time for an upgrade!
Gone is the muddled Desktop where you couldn’t find anything. Gone is the three-page-wide Start Menu with all sorts of programs that were installed, but never used. Oh, and the ability to brew coffee, mow the lawn and read Hugo’s Les Miserables from cover-to-cover while waiting for your pages to load, in IE6, no less? Gone, also.
And what happened to all the files that were on the previous computer? Nothing. And that’s the problem. They’re still there.
Although you’re no longer in possession of the computer, someone else may have it. They may purchase it from the non-profit you made the donation. Maybe you simply tossed it to the curb, and someone picked it up. And that someone, when they turn on the computer, will have access to them all.
(Especially since you set the machine to automatically log-in because it was a waste of time to remember your password, or it took a few seconds too long to log in.)
iTunes Libraries. Word Documents. Web Browsing Histories. Bookmarks. Not a problem, right?
Family Photos. Saved login ID’s to Banks. Facebook Logins. Business Account logins. Amazon/PayPal/eBay logins. Instant Messenger logins. Google+ Logins…
Do I have your attention, now? Good.
Too often, I’ve come across machines that a client purchased, second-hand from friends, family, or a stranger on Craigslist, only to find that a person’s entire life and livelihood digitally reproduced before my eyes. Dramatic as it is, a part of me dies inside when I’m rooting through a machine to find that opening a web browser instantly brings me into someone’s Online Banking profile, for-their-eyes-only email accounts or an abruptly-left Instant Messenger chat!
Let me end with a story. On my way to a client, I stopped off at a nationally-known reseller of donated goods, out of the goodwill of patrons. (hint, hint!) After all, I pride myself on refurbishing systems that are ‘past-their-prime’ and selling them for well below what someone would expect a computer to cost.
On this day, I gravitated toward the locked glass case at the front of the store. Inside lay a corrugated cardboard shipping/carrying case bearing two distinct markings: The manufacturer logo and ‘As-is: Does not turn on.’
Even curiouser, every bit of paperwork and cabling was included. This machine was as close to ‘brand new’ quality as possible.
After less than three minutes, I had the machine booted and operational, instantly loading up an installed copy of Windows XP. Oddly, no account password, so I was at the Desktop in seconds. After finding a Wireless signal, I soon found:
* Bank account information. (with CHECK IMAGES in the My Pictures folder)
* Court documents regarding an ongoing child custody case.
* Children’s photos
* FULL access to Gmail, Hotmail AND Yahoo email accounts…
All with shortcuts listed on the Desktop.
…After I was able to swallow my heart back into my chest, I promptly rebooted the machine, forgot everything I just witnessed, and erased any possible trace of this person’s data. Had the machine been found in a pawn shop, I would have considered it stolen property. Considering this was through a non-profit AND a complete package, my best assumption is that the previous owner had some unknown issue and simply tossed it aside in favor of a newer, sleeker, faster machine.
Moral of the story? Bring Hellfire (Or me!) down on your machine if you want your privacy to stay private.
* (If a Mac user, replace this with the Spinning Beach Ball O’ Death and OS X login prompt glued to your screen. Perhaps the chrome is flaking off your Macbook’s edges, your screen flickers with the occasional lines appearing, or perhaps you have the ‘Sad Mac’ icon burned into your LCD.)