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You can safely wipe old hard drives using a USB connector and free software. Giving them away will require a local solution.

As each of my PCs was replaced one by one over the last 20 years or so, I did the right thing. I backed up my data and sometimes removed the hard drives for privacy before disposing of the computer. Now, I've got a stack of data on outdated media that I can't read anymore including some very old hard disk drives all containing my life history - for anyone sufficiently bored to want to read.

It takes up too much cupboard space and I want to get rid of it safely. I guess I ought not try to burn it all and I don't own a steamroller necessary to destroy the media beyond recovery. If the media was properly electronically wiped, it would probably be useful to someone and I would happily give it all away to a deserving cause - but I would also be glad to be rid of it in any way that is relatively straightforward, secure, and environmentally safe.

Have you any ideas for thoroughly deleting the data from all this old media? And even if the media is still all in one piece at the end of the process, do you know of any good causes that can use old storage media?

In this excerpt from Answercast #87, I look at ways to connect to old hard drives so they can be wiped of data and disposed of.

Safely wipe old hard drives

So, there are a couple of approaches that I would take in your situation. I actually have a similar stack of hard drives down in my basement.

What I do is this: I have a USB adapter. There's a USB cable available (actually there's several version of these things), but what they are is a USB to either SATA or IDE connector cable.

Using a USB connector

So, the non-USB end of this cable just looks like this big plastic double-sided connector thingy. What that allows you to do is to basically turn any external drive, any hard drive that you happen to have, into a USB external drive. You simply connect it up to the right connector on that cable, potentially provide power (which most of the cable packages also provide) and then access the drive as a USB external drive on any computer you have available.

Then if you haven't already extracted your data from the drives (which you probably have, sounds like you have anyway), then you can run something like DBan on it - but it's not really necessary. What you can run instead is CCleaner which has a wipe disk option.

Wipe the drive

You can actually tell CCleaner to go ahead and delete everything on this external drive and it will simply do so.

It will take a little bit of time. If you like, I believe it actually has the option to overwrite more than once. In my opinion, once is plenty - especially on an older drive.

That then should leave you fairly confident that if there was anything that could have been recovered on that drive... it's not gonna get recovered anymore.

Dispose of the drives

As to what to do physically with the drive, I honestly don't have an answer for you because that's one of those things that varies dramatically from location to location - and that's what I would do.

I would look locally. I would actually check with some of the local computer stores and see if they have any recommendation for PC recycling facilities and so forth that can accept your donation of these hard drives.

If they're very old, they're probably not good for anything anymore. That's kind of unfortunate, but at least that way, you can get it into the hands of somebody who will properly, in an environmentally friendly way, dispose of the electronics associated with the device.

On somewhat newer drives, like maybe within the past five or ten years, the drives may still be valuable to someone. Hopefully, there will be a way for your recycling efforts to make those drives available to those who need them.

But that again is something that I would have you look at locally - rather than try to come up with a generic solution that would work country-wide or even planet-wide.

(Transcript lightly edited for readability.)

Article C6236 - January 12, 2013 « »

Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

Doug Brace
January 12, 2013 7:54 PM

Darik's Boot And Nuke

January 13, 2013 9:41 AM

Me, I drill a couple of holes in them and toss them in the trash.

January 15, 2013 8:41 AM

Any suggestions on how to wipe old MFM and RLL drives?

January 15, 2013 9:01 AM

I have taken old hard drives out to the rifle range and used them for target practice, then dropped them off at electronic recycling. Interesting to note that a 9mm will not pass through most hard drives.

January 15, 2013 9:09 AM

I once used a sledge hammer on a hard drive and mashed it to tiny bits. I tried it on another hard drive and it barely dented it.

Malcolm Otter
January 15, 2013 9:17 AM

I agree with Ronny. I used to use a centre punch and a 4lb hammer at N,S E,W on the drive!

January 15, 2013 9:21 AM

I find the large ball peen hammer to do an excellent job of wiping old hard drives. Much faster than erasing them and no computer, or skill for that matter, is required. After that, they can go into the recycle bin.

January 15, 2013 9:26 AM

SADTA? Which assistant was responsible for proof reading this article.

Just curious...

Mark J
January 15, 2013 12:29 PM

If you don't happen to have a steamroller around the house, old MFM and RLL drives can be effectively wiped with several holes from an electric drill.

Mark J
January 15, 2013 12:32 PM

Thanks, that error has been fixed.

January 15, 2013 3:18 PM

Opening the HD and pouring in very fine magnetized iron filings, closing it and shaking might work. The platters are magnetic discs and the fine particles will mess with them and the read/write heads, I bet'cha!

Old Man
January 15, 2013 5:52 PM

Why such drastic ways to remove data from a hard drive? For most of us, just simply reformatting/erasing the data is enough. Like Leo said in his article about cookies - we just aren't that important.

A couple of questions to answer are how important you are and what value the data would be to someone else. For the average bloke, we're just not worth the effort. I doubt anyone would want to spend a lot of time and money just to see what was on an old unknown HD. It's just not worth the effort.

If you are more paranoid, hook your HD as primary and load some other OS on it. That will replace whatever formatting was there and render the data fairly inaccessible to all but an avid expert.

When I rebuild a computer to donate, I use my older, smaller HDs and load Windows 98 on it. I don't worry about what other data may be there - I'm not that interesting. When the HD breaks down, I tear it apart. I keep the magnets for other uses, and pull the printed circuits. That's mostly to make sure the recycle people will accept it, not to remove the data.

January 22, 2013 6:40 PM

Hi Guys,
A 2 pound sledgehammer will do the job.

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