Before selling or discarding an old computer, or throwing away a disk
or CD, you naturally make sure that you've copied all of the files you
need. You've probably also attempted to delete your personal files so
that other people aren't able to access them. However, unless you have
taken the proper steps to make sure the hard drive, disk, or CD is
erased, people may still be able to resurrect those files.
Where do deleted files go?
When you delete a file, depending on your operating system and your
settings, it may be transferred to your trash or recycle bin. This
"holding area" essentially protects you from yourself - if you
accidentally delete a file, you can easily restore it. However, you
may have experienced the panic that results from emptying the trash
bin prematurely or having a file seem to disappear on its own. The
good news is that even though it may be difficult to locate, the file
is probably still somewhere on your machine. The bad news is that even
though you think you've deleted a file, an attacker or other
unauthorized person may be able to retrieve it.
What are the risks?
Think of the information you have saved on your computer. Is there
banking or credit card account information? Tax returns? Passwords?
Medical or other personal data? Personal photos? Sensitive corporate
information? How much would someone be able to find out about you or
your company by looking through your computer files?
Depending on what kind of information an attacker can find, he or she
may be able to use it maliciously. You may become a victim of identity
theft. Another possibility is that the information could be used in a
social engineering attack. Attackers may use information they find
about you or an organization you're affiliated with to appear to be
legitimate and gain access to sensitive data (see Avoiding Social
Engineering and Phishing Attacks for more information).
Can you erase files by reformatting?
Reformatting your hard drive or CD may superficially delete the files,
but the information is still buried somewhere. Unless those areas of
the disk are effectively overwritten with new content, it is still
possible that knowledgeable attackers may be able to access the
How can you be sure that your information is completely erased?
Some people use extreme measures to make sure their information is
destroyed, but these measures can be dangerous and may not be
completely successful. Your best option is to investigate software
programs and hardware devices that claim to erase your hard drive or
CD. Even so, these programs and devices have varying levels of
effectiveness. When choosing a software program to perform this task,
look for the following characteristics:
- data is written multiple times - It is important to make sure that
not only is the information erased, but new data is written over
it. By adding multiple layers of data, the program makes it
difficult for an attacker to "peel away" the new layer. Three to
seven passes is fairly standard and should be sufficient.
- use of random data - Using random data instead of easily
identifiable patterns makes it harder for attackers to determine
the pattern and discover the original information underneath.
- use of zeros in the final layer - Regardless of how many times the
program overwrites the data, look for programs that use all zeros
in the last layer. This adds an additional level of security.
While many of these programs assume that you want to erase an entire
disk, there are programs that give you the option to erase and
overwrite individual files.
An effective way to ruin a CD or DVD is to wrap it in a paper towel
and shatter it. However, there are also hardware devices that erase
CDs or DVDs by destroying their surface. Some of these devices
actually shred the media itself, while others puncture the writable
surface with a pattern of holes. If you decide to use one of these
devices, compare the various features and prices to determine which
option best suits your needs.
Authors: Mindi McDowell, Matt Lytle
The above article is reproduced with the kind permission of US-CERT (United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team) and the original document may be viewed by clicking here