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The Green Computer: eCycling and Privacy

Submitted by on Friday, 15 January 20102 Comments

Green ComputerLast week’s article on eCycling generated some interesting comments. One email I received made an excellent point: how could I discuss eCycling without mentioning privacy? A very good point, and so I’m using this week’s column to share my thoughts on the matter.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, let me give you an idea of just how important privacy is in the year 2010. The FTC estimates that 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year. A scam artist who gets ahold of your birthdate, address, social, account numbers, etc. can cause you many years of legal and financial difficulty. Even if no actual fraud or theft occurs, privacy invasion is just plain creepy–think of a stranger looking at your vacation photos or reading emails from your sweetheart!

Before I share how you can protect your privacy, let me share a few ways how you can’t. Here are a few computer privacy myths:

  • Nobody can access my data unless they know my password. This one is so wrong it’s not even funny! Anyone with physical access to your computer can easily read all your data (unless of course your data is fully encrypted). They can bypass your password by using a Live CD, moving your drive to another computer, or any number of other methods.
  • I can easily delete all my “sensitive” data by browsing through my hard drive and deleting any documents that look important. What about hidden files? Temporary files? Web browser history and cache? Backups and system restore points? The average computer user will not know every place to look.
  • Deleting files means they’re gone and nobody else can read them. Nope, they just go to the Recycle Bin! Even if you empty the Recycle Bin, the files are still present on the hard drive and can be easily read with common disk utilities. When you delete a file, it is not actually physically erased from the hard drive; unless it is overwritten (by a new file or other methods) the file can still be undeleted (even if you’ve emptied the Recycle Bin).
  • Formatting my hard drive and reinstalling Windows will wipe all my data and provide a “blank slate.” Wrong again! You’d think this is the case, but it’s not so. Reformatting might destroy some, or even most, of your personal data, but certainly not all of it.

Paranoid yet? You should be! Here’s a true story: I bought a second hand computer through Craigslist. The seller made no effort whatsoever to delete any of her personal data. Being an honest person, I deleted her data before I could put it to evil use. But wait–it gets weirder! While looking around the hard disk for files I could delete, I found a bunch of digital photos. Scanning through them, I recognized people and places I knew! It turns out she had bought the computer from a college classmate of mine, and he also made no effort to protect his privacy. These photos, emails, term papers, financial spreadsheets, etc. were like a trail of breadcrumbs for an identity thief. Even if you believe “Oh, I’m broke and boring; who would want to steal my identity?” think about other people’s personal data that might be stored on your computer (such as your loved ones’ names, birthdays, phone numbers, and addresses).

Now that you’re paying attention, here are three Green Computer recommended solutions for eCycling your computer without compromising your privacy:

  • Destroy your hard drive! Okay, it’s not the most environmental-friendly suggestion, but it will guarantee your data can never be recovered (and it sure is fun). Remove the hard drive from the computer and smash, crush, burn, or catapult it into oblivion.
  • Keep your old hard drive for extra storage. An extra hard drive is always handy for backups or storing your music collection. Some computers will accommodate a second internal hard drive; if not, you can purchase an inexpensive case or “caddy” for the drive that connects through a USB port. (If you are donating the computer to a school or nonprofit, it might be a nice gesture to install a fresh, new hard drive so they can actually use the computer; inexpensive drives can be had for under $50.)
  • Wipe all data from the hard drive using a utility specifically for that purpose. As I mentioned above, the standard delete/format utilities provided with Windows do not reliably delete all data. The only safe solution is a utility that writes random (or “zero”) data to each and every bit and byte on your hard drive. This will overwrite the original contents and protect your privacy. One such utility is DBAN (and guess what, it’s free!). This is the only method I recommend if you are including the hard drive when you donate/recycle the computer.

I hope this article hasn’t scared you off eCycling or donating that old computer. It really is the responsible (and generous) thing to do. Hopefully, using the tips above, you can do so while feeling confident about your privacy.

Matthew Edward Liston is a writer, editor, musician, and green computing consultant located in the rural hill towns of New York. You may contact him through the comment field below or at www.matthewliston.com.

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