House Call 2013 — Part 1: Sanitizing a drive

Fred Langa

The 2013 House Call series starts with a trip to Florida and a day spent helping Windows Secrets reader Pam Newberry with her PC problems.

Coming from the Northeast, I found Sarasota refreshingly warm and green; but fixing Pam’s PCs was a challenge — multiple systems running various versions of Windows, each with different issues.

The Windows Secrets House Call series is an occasional project in which I visit readers’ homes or businesses and work with them to diagnose and cure real-life hardware and software problems. I then share what we learned in the Windows Secrets newsletter.

For a fuller explanation of House Calls and how it works, see the first article in the 2012 series: the April 12, 2012, Top Story, “House Call 2012: Fixing a sluggish PC.”

The trouble: Both hardware and software

Pam had five PCs needing help, but because House Call is a one-day visit, we selected two systems to work on. Part One of this House Call tackles preparing an old system for donation. Part Two, to follow in next week’s issue, covers upgrading a cranky, Vista-installed Dell system to Windows 8.

This week’s troublesome system was an old, XP-era Toshiba notebook with a dead video system. When the machine was powered on, its screen showed no illumination or activity of any kind. Connecting an external monitor produced the same results. The obvious diagnosis (which Pam had reached on her own) was a failure of the notebook’s on-the-motherboard video subsystem — rendering the Toshiba completely useless.

Rather than spend the money to rehabilitate an old notebook with a new motherboard, Pam had already decided to donate it to a local tech school, where it could be used for parts and/or teaching purposes. But first she needed to wipe the system’s hard drive, ensuring that none of her personal information would go out the door with the notebook.

The problem: How to wipe a hard drive when there’s no way to see what the system is doing. We rolled up our figurative sleeves and got to work.

Using a drive-connector kit on an internal drive

I have a small, amazingly inexpensive gizmo (see Figure 1) that should be in every serious geek’s repair kit: a SATA/PATA/IDE-to-USB connection kit. Costing under $10, the converter kit lets you power up and access virtually any drive from virtually any computer, via a standard USB 2.0 port.

Drive attachment kit

Figure 1. Simple, easy-to-use, hard-drive connection/converter kit

The kit consists of an AC power supply with both a four-prong connector for powering older IDE drives and an L-shaped SATA connector plug for newer drives. A multiheaded data adapter converts the IDE (info), PATA (info), or SATA (info) interface to USB. (IDE and PATA are effectively the same. The adapter has a 40-pin connector for standard IDE/PATA drives and a 44-pin connector for most 2.5-inch laptop drives.) My kit also included a standard SATA data cable.

And yes, you really can find this kit online for under $10! Search for the phrase SATA/PATA/IDE USB 2.0 Adapter, or see an example of a similar kit on Amazon.

Using the kit, I attached the hard drive from Pam’s dead notebook to a working machine using the following steps:

  • To start, we unplugged the notebook and removed its battery. We removed four small Phillips screws that secured the hard drive–bay cover plate, then removed an additional screw that held the drive in place. At that point, the drive slid easily from its bay (see Figure 2; the empty drive bay is at the upper right.)

    Removed drive

    Figure 2. The hard drive was easily removed from the dead notebook.

  • Next, we attached the connector/converter box to the Toshiba’s drive (using the SATA cable) and plugged the box’s USB connector into another working laptop. We then connected the box to AC to power up the drive (see Figure 3).

    Drive connected

    Figure 3. The notebook drive is alive and accessible.

At this point, we could have used the good notebook to image the old drive or otherwise back up its data. (We could have even booted the working notebook from Pam’s old drive.) But none of that was necessary; Pam was certain there were no irreplaceable files or unusually sensitive data on the drive.

Pam simply wanted to securely erase the contents of the old hard drive — to sanitize it — making it safe to give away.

To thoroughly clean a drive, it’s not enough to merely erase files in the conventional way or reformat the drive. Files sent to the recycle bin are trivially easy to recover; reformatting can be undone with little difficulty. The surest way to sanitize a hard drive is to overwrite the drive’s entire surface with random data — several times! This will make any attempts to recover data extremely difficult.

Solid-state drives are harder to wipe than traditional platter drives, thus requiring some additional steps, as described in the Sept. 13, 2012, Top Story, “Rethinking the process of hard-drive sanitizing.” That article also describes other techniques you can use when high data security is called for.

But Pam’s drive was a common, spinning-platter drive that didn’t contain any sensitive files. So we could have used any one of the many simple drive-wiping tools available free online. We, however, happened to have Piriform’s CCleaner (site) on hand. Its Drive Wiper feature (found under the Tools menu) will overwrite a drive’s data as many as 35 times. We chose three overwrites — ample security for Pam’s needs.

Drive wipes can take quite some time — over six hours in Pam’s case (see Figure 4). We used that time to work on this House Call’s second major task: troubleshooting and stabilizing her wonky Vista system and upgrading it to Windows 8. (The Win8 upgrade process could be an entire article in itself.)

CCleaner Drive Wiper

Figure 4. CCleaner's Drive Wiper cleaning out old data

But to wrap up Part One: When CCleaner’s Drive Wipe finished with the Toshiba’s hard drive, I unplugged the now-pristine drive from the converter kit, slid it back into the drive bay, inserted all the screws, and reinserted the battery. The Toshiba notebook was now safe to donate to the local tech school!

Stay tuned for House Call 2013 — Part 2: A clean OS upgrade!

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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.