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Recent news reports show that much personal information is simply and unknowingly given away when old computers are discarded. I'll look at what to do.

Selling Desktop 2007 Vista: How do I clean up the computer so that nothing personal is left? Can I do this by myself or do I need a professional?

When disposing of a machine - regardless whether it's a sale, a donation, a recycle, or a discard - it's critical to remove all of your personal information from the storage included in that machine.

In this audio segment from an Ask Leo! webinar, I'll discuss one approach to doing so, that - unfortunately - also requires that you erase Windows itself as well.

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Selling Desktop 2007 Vista: How do I clean up the computer so that nothing personal is left? Can I do this by myself or do I need a professional?

So the best way to do this is to use a program called DBAN. It actually stands for Darik's Boot and Nuke.

And what it does is - it's a CD that you burn and then you boot from the boot part. The nuke part is when it's run, it automatically and thoroughly erases everything from your hard drive - everything. So all of your personal information is gone.

Now, the downside of that, that I think causes a lot of people some angst is that it also erases Windows. Like I said, it erases everything on the hard drive. That's the nuke part. So once we get past the legalities of transferring Windows to another user, which depending on the Windows and depending on how you got it, depending on the license, may or may not be a legal thing to do.

The right way to do it is to erase the hard disc completely with a utility like DBAN and then either reinstall Windows from scratch from your original Windows installation media and the key that went with it or provide the original Windows installation media and the key that went with it with the machine so that the recipient of the machine can then install Windows from scratch.

Is there a way to do this safely without erasing Windows?

The answer, unfortunately, is no. The problem is that Windows saves a lot of information. You've probably heard about the registry. There's lots of random things that get stuffed in there from time-to-time.

Presumably, nothing of a deeply personal nature, but just enough to make it uncomfortable and to have some of your personal information - some of your personal activities - like your most recently used documents or a setting in a program or who knows what.

That's actually part of the problem. We don't know the level of the information that's been stored in the registry. Along with any other files that Windows has written during its life as your copy of Windows on your machine.

You can certainly uninstall all your programs; you can delete all of your data files; you can do the secure wipe of your free space that we talked about earlier to make sure that everything you deleted really is deleted.

You can run CCleaner on it to make sure that all of your temporary files are deleted and document history is one of those things that we know about that gets deleted. You can go through all of that, but there's simply no assurance that there isn't anything left behind. The only assurance that you really have is to delete the entire contents of the hard disc completely - nuke it. And the way to then provide Windows with that machine, is to provide the original installation media and the product key.

And to be clear, you're not giving people a copy of Windows; that would be wrong; that would be illegal. You are transferring (when it's allowed) you are transferring your copy of Windows along with that machine to the recipient. So that means, if you give them an installation CD - more importantly, if you give them the product key that enables the Windows from the installation CD - you can no longer use that copy of Windows yourself, legally. You are transferring it to another person; copying it, giving it to another person boils down to software piracy.

So, the safest thing to do when turning in a computer, when giving a computer to somebody else - erase it - top to bottom. Use DBAN; make sure that the hard discs themselves are completely empty and then go from there.

Article C5297 - May 5, 2012 « »

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?

Ron N.
May 8, 2012 9:36 AM

Most computers have a recovery partition. Use this to wipe and reinstall Windows. Then the recipient has a working machine and not a doorstop.

May 8, 2012 9:36 AM

ther's is a product called wpedrive that has to disk you get and removes all things on hard drive or the other disk removes everything but the oprating system I belive it sales fo about 435.00 dollars online

May 8, 2012 9:40 AM

okay I am sorry let me correct my frist comments I am not good at typeing with out looking up There's is a product called wipedrive that will take everything off your hard drive but they also have disc that will take everything and leave the opreating system om your hard drive you can look online for this product (wipedrive) I think it sells for around $35.00 dollars sorry about the bad post Michael

Jerry Hancock
May 8, 2012 4:19 PM

I bought a used pc a few years ago, and it was clean with only programs installed like it had when it was new. However, after about 6 months of use, I lost some data so I wound up buying a data recovery software for about $49. It ran and ran and ran. It took it 17 hours to finish. And when it was done, there was so much stuff loaded that I couldn't even find the one thing I was trying to recover. What a mess it was too. Pictures of people I didn't even know. Documents... the whole nine yards.

That's a classic example of a machine that had not been properly cleaned before being given away or sold.
May 8, 2012 10:34 PM

Won't re-formating the disk do the same things?

Mark J
May 9, 2012 1:48 AM

A complete format will essentially do the same thing as a one pass wipe, but you'd still need to either remove the drive or boot your computer from a removable medium in order to format it. DBAN is one simple way to accomplish this.

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