New device this holiday season? How to "erase" your old one

Jon Rajewski computer forensics, in the news

In light of the holiday gift-giving season – I was contacted today by Jennifer Reading (@WCAX_Jennifer), a local news reporter, to give a brief interview on the topic of erasing your old electronic equipment.  This topic is directly linked to preventing identify theft and inadvertently distributing personal / confidential information. Her timely article is focused on what to do with your old digital devices when you plan on just using your new ones.

Before I provide the “how-to reference guides”, I wanted to quickly describe the act of deletion relative to this conversation.

Let’s break this down into three scenarios:

Placing a file in the Recycle Bin

If my mother wanted to delete a file from her computer, she would put it in the Recycle Bin (Trash for Mac users). For her, she just wants to get rid of the file on her desktop. And her act of deletion – putting the file in the Recycle Bin did the job. 

To leave the technology realm and to compare this to an analog situation, this would be like my mother, after reading a few chapter of her favorite book, simply closing it. The words on the page (data) are still intact, but to a passerby – they would have no idea what was on the page. 

Emptying the Recycle Bin/Trash

If my sister, who is a bit more technical when compared to my mother, wanted to delete a file from her computer, she would go one step further. she would put it in the Recycle Bin (Trash for Mac users) and then would then empty it. 

To compare this to the above book analogy – this would be like my sister taking the book and tearing out the Table of Contents for the chapter she was reading. The chapter itself (data) is still in the book, but trying to find it might take some additional steps.  

Wiping a file

If I were to delete a file from a computer with the intention of making sure nobody would ever see that file again, I would digitally destroy the file using a data destruction software/program commonly referred to as “wiping software” 

To compare this to the above examples, this would be like me ripping the chapter itself (data) out of the book. 

To summarize, deleting a file or digital device is relative to what your purpose is for the device after the deletion. For example, if you were to wipe every file that you delete it could be considered excessive. By simply putting files in the Recycle Bin/Trash and emptying it is sufficient for normal computer activities. However, if one intends on donating the device and never using it again – wiping should be considered.

This blog post will not go into deeper conversations as to why you should/shouldn’t “wipe” all of the time and it’s noteworthy to mention that its not always a good to do so. It’s also noteworthy to mention that just because you “wiped” a file that forensic practitioners with the proper education and expertise couldn’t uncover the file using advanced forensic techniques.

If you have personal information on a digital device and you plan on donating/recycling/disposing of it, you should take the steps necessary to ensure your personal/confidential information is destroyed from it. Below are references (I do not endorse any of them, I’m just listing them for the purpose of this article) to methods for “wiping” digital data.

Apple Computers
Windows Computers
Files from a Mac Computer
Files from a Windows Computer 

Please note that there are many file destruction / deletion products. Due care should be taken to ensure that a proper “wipe” took place. If you are concerned and need additional help, seek out a competent digital forensic professional and request them to assist you. It is also a good idea to have them provide you a certification letter that they properly wiped the device.