Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

There's only one way to erase ALL passwords saved on your machine. You probably aren't going to like it!

There is software to recover lost passwords and to manage passwords, etc. But is there software that will search out and delete stored passwords so that your passwords cannot be recovered from your system by anyone?

In this excerpt from Answercast #46, I look at the problem of deleting stored passwords that have been saved on your hard drive.

Deleting stored passwords

The short answer to your question is no and yes.

The no is that there's no software that's going to run through your system and delete passwords that it finds because:

  • There's no single place that passwords are stored.

  • If something were searching, it wouldn't know every possible place to search.

Even then, it wouldn't know necessarily that "this thing" stored over here is a password and "that thing" stored over there is not.

So, there is no utility that will do what you're asking for.

Secure wipe

The reason I say yes is that when you get rid of a machine, you absolutely want to get rid of the stored passwords. Fortunately, you also want to get rid of pretty much everything else.

That's when I recommend a utility called DBan – Darik's Boot and Nuke. That utility erases the entire hard drive, securely. As a side effect, yep, all of your stored passwords are gone.

So that's the only solution I really have for you – to this generic a question.

Finding stored passwords

Ultimately, it really depends on which passwords you're most concerned about; which utilities have passwords that you're concerned about.

There are definitely lots of tools that, as you said, will display passwords that are stored on your machine. Even browsers will often display their own database of saved passwords for you.

Partial cleaning

One utility that can be useful specifically when it comes to a wide range of fairly popular programs (including most major browsers and a few other things) is CCleaner.

  • CCleaner, I believe, has the ability to go in and clear out saved passwords and password stores.

Secure delete

Now, realize that the way that it does it may not be secure or at least not by default. Remember that when you delete something on your computer;

  • You're rarely actually overwriting it;

  • You're simply marking it as deleted and the data remains on the hard drive.

You then need to do something called a "secure delete" to actually overwrite the data in this now free and available disk space. CCleaner also happens to have a function to do that, but it's a separate operation.

Passwords for specific programs

It's not entirely guaranteed that when you delete a password in program "X" (either using program X's own function, or using something like CCleaner to do it under the hood), that the password itself will actually end up as part of deleted space.

It may end up somewhere else on your hard disk in a different file managed by that program, depending on exactly how that particular program manages passwords.

Deleting all passwords is complicated

That's why this is such a very difficult problem to try and solve in any absolute sense. Deleting passwords is (in concept) a very simple thing. But in reality:

  • Because passwords are stored in so many different ways;

  • And in so many different places;

  • There's really no generic solution that will guarantee that they've all been erased;

  • Other than erasing everything.

Article C5725 - August 23, 2012 « »

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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.

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2 Comments
8bit-matrix
August 23, 2012 8:06 AM

Thanx Leo.

I've always thought that formatting and loading a fresh windows installation was totally secure. You didn't mention it as an option, so now I'm unsure.

In case you say I should use DBan, will it erase everything, including the hidden recovery partition?

Mark J
August 23, 2012 10:48 AM

@8bit Matrix
Running DBan will certainly remove all of your passwords and much more, but it is an extreme solution to the question ask in this article.

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