Protecting private data on your PC

Dear Larry,

I am planning to give away my old computer after I purchase a new one in a few weeks. I’m concerned about any confidential or sensitive information that might remain on my old hard drive. What should I be worried about, and is there anything I can do about it? —D.M.

Dear D.M.,

There’s a lot you should be worried about. Your computer can communicate a wealth of information about you. A person with the right technical skills and access to your computer can piece together all sorts of data that you wished were private.


Your first step towards cleaning out your computer is to create a new account and delete all the old ones. Click Start, then Control Panel, then Users or User Accounts. Next, click Manage Another Account, then Create a New Account, type a generic name in the box (like “User”), change the type to Administrator (this is important), and, finally, click Create Account.

Now that you’ve created this new account, you need to log into it. Click Start, then select the Log Off option (or simply restart your computer). When asked to choose which account to log into, select the new “User” account.

OK, next delete all the accounts other than this one. Once again, click Start, then Control Panel, then Users or User Accounts. Next, click Manage Another Account, then for each account other than the User account you’re currently logged into, select the account, then click Delete the Account, and be sure to delete the files when prompted.

Now that your sensitive material has been deleted, you should be feeling better, right? Guess again. Deleted files are never really deleted at all. Anyone with the right utility software can easily retrieve documents you thought you had long since removed. Various software solutions abound that can be instructed to repeatedly wipe all available space on your hard drive with a random set of 1’s and 0’s. If you’re really serious about deleting every last bit of information, using a program such as this may be a wise idea.

And there’s more! There might be other data stored in folders that were not removed using the procedure above. You may need to scour your hard drive for other sensitive data. Also, your computer probably contains temporary files created by some of your programs that might hold confidential data. Are you totally paranoid yet?

I’m not recommending you destroy your computer to be certain it’s not carrying away your secrets (though destroying the hard drive within your computer is definitely one viable option). Nor am I suggesting that just about anyone can find anything locked away in the bits and bytes of your hard drive. What I am saying is that it pays to be prudent, and if you’re not sure about what you’re doing, hire a professional.

Now if only someone would invent a good stain remover for a hard disk…

This is Larry Schneider, logging off.


Larry Schneider is the owner of Accent on Computers, a Greenwich-based consulting firm catering to individuals, businesses and professional offices. PC and Mac services include computer setup, training, troubleshooting, virus resolution, networking, Internet, database and programming. Call 203-625-7575, visit, or send e-mail to [email protected]

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