Donating Your Old Hard Drive: Are You Crazy?!?!

Try this: get out a manila envelope and write your name, address, phone number, and social security number on it. Now stuff it with your bank account records, your tax returns, your family photos, and every email you’ve ever sent. Just for good measure, write down every password you’ve ever used and throw them all in there as well.  Now seal up the envelope and toss it in the trash. How ya feelin’? Safe? Didn’t think so.

I’m going to take a wild guess and assume that the computer you’re on right now isn’t your first.  The same goes if you’re on a tablet or a phone.  If you’re anything like most computer users these days, you’ve had a few. You’ve probably upgraded or replaced multiple systems.  Seems a reasonable assumption. One of the more common upgrades for PCs these days is installing a larger hard drive, or replacing a hard drive with a solid state drive.  Heck, I’ve done it dozens of times.  So when you do upgrade to a new hard drive, or even a completely new computer, the question becomes; what do you do with the old drive?

I’ll give you a hint: the answer ISN’T donate it.  If you’ve upgraded to a new computer, donating the old one is a great option. Somebody can get some use out of the slightly older tech.  But always, always, ALWAYS take the hard drive out first.  You see, your hard drive knows things…things about you. It has info. It has details about you that you do not want getting out into the world.  And if you put that drive out there, it will get out. Deleting your files will not stop it. Formatting the drive won’t either. A clean install of the operating system? Still not safe.  Your old hard drive knows too much…and for that, it must be destroyed (said in my best Darth Vader voice).

“You have failed me for the last time.”

And then there are the folks who say “Look, Techster, I wiped my hard drive before I donated it. I’m totally safe.”

Think so?  Do yourself a favor and Google “Recover data off of a wiped hard drive.” You might expect to see a bunch of people talking about how impossible it is. But what you’ll actually see are countless posts, videos, how-tos, and walk-throughs for doing exactly that.  Recovering data off a wiped, reformatted, or even damaged hard drive is surprisingly easy…and common. There are bad people out there with a lot of time and knowledge on their hands who love nothing more than to get their hands on a used hard drive and dig out the old data.  It’s a hobby for them.

So no matter what steps you take, you’re not guaranteed to be completely safe. But what worries me is the folks who don’t even try.  If you’ve read some of my other posts you know I frequent my local Goodwill, looking for usable tech.  Something I find there on a regular basis is hard drives.  You can get a good, functioning hard drive for as little as ninety-nine cents there, and it’s nice to have an extra drive or two handy if you’re someone who works on computers as much as I do. More than once I’ve picked up a super-cheap drive there, brought it home, plugged it in, and found complete copies of Windows: user’s documents, emails, taxes…you name it, all right there.  If I was a seedier type, I’d have had a field day with all this info.

The first time it happened, I was shocked.  It was an 80 GB laptop hard drive that I picked up for a buck.  Most likely this drive had been replaced by something larger and faster. But instead of destroying the old drive, the original owner had thrown it on the donation pile without so much as deleting their Internet cache.  That person doesn’t know it, but they owe me their credit score.  I didn’t do any real digging, but I did look at the names of some of the files: Family photos, tax returns, bills, credit card information…it was all there, ripe for the taking.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I showed my wife, and she was just as shocked. Even as a computer novice she knew better than to do something so careless.  Fortunately for the previous owner, I did the ethical thing and immediately reformatted the drive and filled it with my own data.  Had the drive fallen into the hands of any number of other types, this person’s life might have taken a very bad turn. So, original owner, wherever you are, you’re welcome

This should cover it.

…and don’t do that again.

Anyone remember me mentioning the NAS I picked up at Goodwill for five dollars?  That was another bad decision by someone, but in this case on a corporate level. A quick look at the data on it showed the NAS had been a company storage device.  A less nice person could have wreaked havoc on this business. But once again, I just wiped the data and began copying my own to it. And once again, you’re welcome, entire company I saved from financial ruin.

This kind of stuff worries me. It’s happened enough that it’s clearly a common practice to just toss old hard drives. While that seems crazy to me, I’ve been in this industry for decades.  So maybe it’s just a lack of knowledge. Still, would you throw your tax returns in the recycle bin?  Would you toss your old credit cards or bank statements in the garbage? I would hope not.

I can’t emphasize this enough: Do not throw out or donate your old hard drives.  You’re gambling on a one-way ticket to Sad Town.


So, if you can’t throw them out, what can you do with them?  There are lots of ways to destroy old hard drives.  Here’s a good wikiHow on some of the easiest and most common techniques.  My personal method has always been disassembling them. I remove the platters and magnets, then recycle the rest. The platters get a nice once-over with a screwdriver, then get cut up.

The platters also make great mirrors…if you don’t mind the hole in the middle.

Trust me when I tell you that data is gone for good. The magnets I keep; they’re fun.

Whether you treat your old hard drive to “hammer time”, a nice warm fire, or some other painful end…there are so many ways for a hard drive to die…the point is to protect your data.  If you really aren’t sure what to do, just keep the drive in a safe until you decide.

But whatever you do, don’t hand identity thieves everything they need to ruin your life.

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