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Recycling computers and data security.

Before unloading your old computers (mobile phones, iPods, etc.), there are several things to consider. Security should be your biggest concern in the current paperless, everything-is-online, digital age. It is quite simple to find data on old hard drives and really kind of scary to think about the personal and/or business information you might be throwing away. If you’re a business owner, consider the computers used by your accounting and HR departments or managers. Simply deleting these sensitive files (bookkeeping programs, excel spreadsheets, employee records with social security numbers, etc.) is not enough (think Oli North). But more on that in a bit. Additionally, in California (and many other states) computers and other electronics are classified as toxic waste and therefore must be disposed of properly. Lastly, if they are still in working condition, you might be able to help someone out by donating them.

Wipe It

When you delete a file, its not really gone, the computer just ignores it and eventually that space on the hard drive will be used again. Until that space is reused, that file can be found and recovered. The only way to securely delete your data and feel confident that even the most determined of computer geeks won’t be able to get it back, is to write and rewrite over the files several times. All Macs include a program called Disk Utility which can do this, and you can easily start up your computer from the CDs/DVDs that came with it, and use it to securely erase your entire hard drive. (This article from Apple’s support site is a bit old, but it still applies.) Note that in these days of 250GB and larger drives that this can take several hours or even a few days. If you own a PC, you will need to find a 3rd party utility to do it and the steps are a bit more complicated. There are some free options out there like our favorite, Darik’s Boot and Nuke. If this seems daunting, ask your kids, they can probably help.

Keep in mind this means of the applications and the operating system will need to be reinstalled if you plan on giving this computer to someone, but that is a small price to pay to ensure your data is kept private. If you don’t want to take the time to erase the drives, or are not sure you want to let go of your data, then simply remove the hard drive, put it in a bag and store it on the shelf. Now you can safely dispose of the rest of the computer and worry about your data later.

We are often told that there isn’t anything worth worrying about. What about identity theft? Most of our clients have digital copies of bank statements, credit card statements, information about mortgage payments, maybe even digital copies of their tax returns. Believe it or not, there is actually a sub-culture out there that looks for used hard drives at flee markets and on eBay just to see what they can find.

Donat It

Once you have taken care of protecting your privacy, you may want to consider donating your computer. There are many organizations out there that rebuild or make “franken-computers” for kids, schools, and non-profits. The Electronic Industries Alliance maintains a list of donation programs, and sites like TechSoup’s TechFinder assist you in finding a recycler based on your zip code.

Recycle It

If on the other hand, you look at it and all you can think is “Its dead Jim“, then find your local toxic waste collection site or recycling location. There are many sites out there to help you find the appropriate method.

  • is good for small electronics and small computers
  • The Consumer Electronics Association site My Green Electronics lists government and private recycling facilities
  • The Telecommunications Industry Association’s Find a Recycler site lists recyclers by state
  • Office Depot sells Tech Recycling Boxes for $5 to $15; you buy the box, fill it up, and then return the unsealed box to an Office Depot for recycling.
  • If you live in the LA Area, you can also find listings for local city run locations which are typically free for residents.

Send It Back From Whence It Came

If you are purchasing a new computer, Apple offers recycling of your old computer. The good news is that the old computer doesn’t have to be a Mac. The not-so-bad news is that you can’t simply take the old one to the Apple Store, you have to box it up with the pre-approved shipping labels and then drop the boxes off at a FedEx location. Additionally, Apple offers recycling of old iPods and Cell Phones. Just visit the page on their site, fill out the form, print out the shipping label, and drop it off at the nearest post office.

However you dispose of your old computers, cell phones, PDAs, etc., your privacy should be your primary concern. When in doubt, keep the drive and dump the computer. Just remember the time and effort you put into wiping the data pales in comparison to the pain of undoing identity theft. Besides, you can always relieve some stress by beating the drive to smithereens with a sledge hammer!

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