Rethinking the process of hard-drive sanitizing

Fred Langa

Standard drive- and file-wiping tools are no longer adequate for completely removing data — especially when used with the newest hard drives.

But researchers have identified new procedures that reliably make old data virtually unrecoverable on any drive, whether magnetic or solid-state.

Leftover data is an obvious security risk when you sell, give away, or otherwise dispose of any computer storage device. Any data — old documents, files, financial records, passwords, photos, whatever — left behind on a hard drive can come back to haunt you, should they fall into the wrong hands.

Most Windows Secrets readers already know that simply erasing files or reformatting a drive doesn’t mean your data is safely removed. There are plenty of undelete and unformat tools (many free) readily available that require no special skills to use.

That’s why, for years, the common advice has been to sanitize or wipe a hard drive before it leaves your possession. The process most often used is overwriting, which typically replaces all existing data with meaningless patterns of ones and zeros.

That’s the theory, at least.

Erasing everything is actually not all that easy

It’s been known for some time that even a multi-pass (so-called “government”) wipe of traditional magnetic drives leaves behind some data — information that might be recoverable by someone with enough access, time, and forensic technology to analyze the drive’s platters.

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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2012-09-13:

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.