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Make sure data secured when you discard your computer

A reader wants to know how you can be sure that your data will not be accessible when you dispose of your old computer.

While most hackers will not target random discarded hard drives, identity theft is a very real threat, and wise users will take steps to protect themselves. One option is to perform a security wipe on the hard drive, which reassigns each bit on the drive three times in order to obscure the data completely. A less costly route is simply to destroy the hard drive.

So if you are discarding an old computer, and there is no concern about the functioning of the system, there is an element of fun in harvesting the old hard drive.

Laptop hard drives are much easier to access. On the bottom of the laptop there are usually access doors for the battery, RAM and the hard drive. RAM access will show a rectangular symbol with teeth, resembling a stick of RAM. The battery symbol looks like a C or D battery. The hard drive access will often show a stack of disks, and may be on the bottom or on the side. Remove screws and slide it out to the side, or remove the access door on the bottom and the hard drive will tip out and disconnect from its connection.

Desktop components can be accessed by removing the side panel, if you are willing to void your warranty. Inside you will see a stack of box-shaped drives, some accessible from the front of the computer, such as the CD-RW and floppy drive. The hard drive is usually in this stack, but is not accessible from the front. The hard drive has a two-inch ribbon cable which connects it to the motherboard. Remove the screws holding the hard drive in its bay and slide it out. The ribbon cable will disconnect easily. Keep in mind that some models are more difficult than this to disassemble.

Once you have the hard drive in hand, pull out a heavy hammer and protective goggles. A laptop hard drive with its ceramic disks will give a satisfying crunch, and you will hear the shattered disks rattling inside. A desktop hard drive is metallic. Hammer away until the casing is dented inward, denting the disks and incapacitating the drive. There is equipment available to try to retrieve data from moderately damaged hard drives. Determined that no part of your data ever be retrieved? Take the drive apart and physically deface the disks.