Updated on 12/26/2022 with new recommendations for a backup drive and current instructions for Windows drive encryption and deleting browser data.
Have an old computer lying around the house? Don't just throw it away. Computers house all sorts of toxins that are bad for the environment and all of us who live in it. Not to mention the personal information – passwords, account numbers, license keys or registration numbers for software programs, addresses and phone numbers, medical and prescription information, tax returns, and other personal documents – that you would rather not fall into the wrong hands.
Here's how to safeguard your personal information and ensure your computer is disposed of properly.
How to delete your personal information
However you choose to dispose of your computer, you need to do several things if you don’t want a stranger to access your data.
Save important files
Back up your files or transfer them to a new computer. The least time-consuming way to do this is to invest in an external solid-state drive (SSD). SSDs are more expensive than hard disk drives (HDD), but they are less fragile because they have no moving parts and are less prone to failure, according to the most recent Drive Stats report by Backblaze. For an SSD, I like the Western Digital My Passport SSD (on sale starting at $94.99 for a 1TB drive, check the price on Amazon).
- Google Drive gives you 15GB of file storage for free, and if you need more, you can upgrade to Google, the paid version of Google Drive. You can buy 100GB for $1.99 per month ($19.99 per year), 200 GB for $2.99 per month ($29.99 per year), and 2TB for $9.99 per month ($99.99 per year).
- OneDrive gives you 5GB of free storage with an option to buy 100GB for a monthly subscription of $1.99 per month or $19.99 per year). You can store up to 1TB of storage for one PC or Mac for $6.99 per month ($69.99 per year), which includes a subscription to Office 365 Personal, or 6TB for $9.99 per month ($99.99 per year), which includes the ability to share your store and Office 365 Home for up to 6 users.
- Apple iCloud includes 5GB free, and if you need more storage, you can upgrade to the paid service, iCloud+. With iCloud+, you can share your storage with up to five additional family members – people who are set up for Family Sharing. Apple's 50GB plan costs $0.99 per month, 200GB runs $2.99 per month, and the 2TB option runs $9.99 per month.
After backing up your files in the cloud, you can easily transfer them to a new machine or access them anywhere you have an Internet connection, including your smartphone. Cloud storage also comes in handy if your computer dies and you need to restore your files or you’re traveling and need access to data on a different device.
“Wipe” your hard drive
Simply deleting files won’t cut it. Even if a file name doesn’t show up on the list of available files, the old file data is still there until it is overwritten, and a bad guy can use a data recovery program to retrieve it. I've outlined the steps I recommend you take below.
- Delete and overwrite sensitive files. If you have tax documents and other sensitive files, make sure you delete these files with specialized software designed to meet government standards for secure deletion. For Windows PCs with hard drives, try File Shredder (free). For older Macs with hard drives (MacOS X Yosemite version 10.10 or earlier), you can choose the "Secure Empty Trash" option after deleting your files. You can find it under Finder > Secure Empty Trash. For Macs with MacOS X El Capitan version 10.11 and higher and Windows PCs with SSD drives, you'll need to encrypt your drive. When you wipe your drive at the end of these steps, you'll be securely erasing all of your files.
- Turn on drive encryption. For Windows PCs with SSD drives, go to Start button > Settings > Update & Security > Device Encryption. If the option for Device Encryption appears, make sure it's on. Otherwise, go to Start > Windows System > Control Panel > System and Security > BitLocker Drive Encryption > Manage BitLocker to turn on drive encryption. For Macs, go to System Preferences > Security & Privacy > FileVault and select "Turn On FileVault." You'll then create a password and select Restart.
- Deauthorize your computer. Some programs, such as iTunes and Microsoft Office 365, only allow you to install software on a limited number of computers or allow a limited number of computers to access your files. So be sure to deauthorize your old computer with your accounts – before uninstalling your programs.
- Delete your browsing history. Most browsers save information about your browsing history, and depending on your settings, you can choose to store your usernames and passwords for sites. Obviously, you don’t want a stranger to have access to this information.
First, you'll want to sign out of your browser.
- For Edge and Chrome, click on your profile icon and choose the option to sign out.
- For Firefox, click on Settings (cog icon in the upper right) > Manage more settings > Sync and sign out.
- For Safari, you'll need to turn off iCloud. Go to the Apple menu > System Settings, [your name] > iCloud, and Turn Off Safari.
- For Edge, you click on the triple dots in the upper right corner to open the browser menu, then on Settings > Privacy, search and services. In the "Clear browsing data" section, click on "Choose what to clear." In the Time Range pull-down menu, choose "All time." Make sure all of the checkboxes are selected, so everything gets removed.
- For Chrome, click on the menu icon (triple dots in the upper right) > Settings > Privacy and security > Clear browsing data. In the popup window, use the Time range pulldown to select "All time." Make sure all of the boxes are checked to ensure everything is removed.
- For Firefox, click on Settings (cog icon in the upper right) > Manage more settings > Privacy & security. Go through and click on the "Clear Data box next to all types of data.
- For Safari, open the Safari app and choose History > Clear History.
- Uninstall your programs. Some programs, such as Microsoft Office, may contain personal information such as your name and address or other details. So be sure to uninstall any programs before disposing of your computer.
- Consult your employer about data disposal policies. If you use your computer for business purposes, check with your employer about how to manage business-related information on your computer. The law requires businesses to follow data security and disposal requirements for certain information that’s related to customers.
- Wipe your hard drive. For PCs, once you've gone through and removed the data you know is there, it's time to perform a factory reset to ensure you've removed all of your personal files and software programs. If your computer has a hard drive, restart the computer, download and install Eraser.
Once installed, you'll click on the downward pointing arrow next to Erase Schedule, select New Task, select Run immediately and then click on Add Data. Under Target Type, select Unused Disk Space, check off Erase cluster tips and click OK. The tool will then permanently delete anything that was deleted during your reset. If your computer has an SSD drive, right click on the Windows icon in the lower left corner, select Control Panel > System and Security > Administrative Tools > Computer Management > then right click on the disk where you store your files, choose New Volume and follow the prompts until you get to the Format window. There you will make sure the quick format is not checked and then format the drive. If you don't have the option to encrypt your drive, you can use Blancco Drive Eraser ($18.46 on Blancco) for a full wipe.
For Macs, you'll want to erase and reinstall MacOS. The process differs slightly depending on whether your Mac has an Intel chip and whether you're running macOS Monterey or an earlier version. In either case, you'll want to make sure your macOS is up to date before starting.
If you have a Mac with an Intel chip, in the menu bar, choose Apple menu > Restart. Once your Mac restarts (and the gray screen appears), hold down the Command and R keys. Select Disk Utility, then click Continue. Select your startup disk on the left, then click the Erase tab. Choose MacOS Extended (Journaled) from the Format menu, enter a name, then click Erase. After the disk is erased, choose Disk Utility > Quit Disk Utility. Select Reinstall macOS, click Continue, then follow the onscreen instructions.
If you have a Mac with an Apple chip or you have a Mac running macOS Monterey with an Apple T2 Security Chip, in the menu bar, choose Apple menu > Restart. Once your Mac restarts (and the gray screen appears), hold down the Command and R keys. Sign in with administrator user ID. Select Disk Utility and click on Continue. Select Macintosh HD and click on the Erase button. Choose MacOS Extended (Journaled) from the Format menu, enter a name, then click Erase. After the disk is erased, choose Disk Utility > Quit Disk Utility. Select Reinstall macOS, click Continue, then follow the onscreen instructions.
For Chromebooks, you'll need to perform a factory reset. To do that, sign into your Chromebook with the owner account (if you have more than one account loaded). From the Taskbar, click on Settings > Advanced > Powerwash > Restart. After your Chromebook restarts, select "Powerwash," and click on "Continue."
Or physically damage your hard drive. If you're just looking to recycle your computer and are very concerned about someone recovering your files, take the hard drive out and drill a bunch of holes in it or beat the heck out of it with a hammer.
How to dispose of your computer
To avoid all those toxins ending up in a landfill, the better choice is to recycle, donate, trade in, or sell your computer.
Recycling your computer
If you opt to recycle it, keep in mind that some recyclers will simply take your old machine and ship it over to developing nations, where children are often used to scavenge piles of e-waste looking for valuable components. To avoid contributing to this irresponsible practice, use a recycler that has been certified by Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI) as meeting the R2 standard, or is part of the “e-Steward” network, meaning they don’t export to places like Pakistan or China, and they follow other high standards. Many of them also will reuse and refurbish electronics. Staples is an e-Steward Enterprise and will recycle laptops and other consumer electronics for free.
Trading-in your computer
As for trading in your PC or laptop, there are scads of companies that offer trade-in programs through which you can sell a wide assortment of used electronics. Options include BestBuy and Staples. Your local Best Buy also has trade-in options, but compare what it offers against the online services first.
What to do if your computer won't turn on
If your computer is dead, chances are it's a problem with the motherboard or the power supply, but the hard drive and the data on it should be fine. To back up the data on it and then erase the drive, you will need to remove the drive from the dead computer and hook it up to another computer using a SATA to USB cable (you can get a SATA to USB cable for under $25 on Amazon). Once plugged in, the new computer should recognize and map your old drive, at which point you can just copy the files off and then run Eraser to wipe the drive.
[image credit: Western Digital, electronics recycling concept via BigStockPhoto]