The Ultimate Guide to Securely Wiping Computer Hard Drives Clean

28 May 2020 | Michael Waksman
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There are a number of reasons why you should consider wiping your computer hard drives in a secure way. You may want to protect confidential information, safeguard  your customers’ identity, or permanently destroy files before giving away or getting rid of your hard drive. If you are working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you may also need to re-purpose an old device by securely removing all of the existing data. 

Whatever the reason, this simple guide will provide you with all the information you need on data wiping and give you an outline of how to get started. 

What Is Data Wiping?  

Data wiping is a term used to describe the process of permanently removing the content of a file or disk space. Also known as file shredding, the act of wiping data from your computer is not as simple as hitting the delete button. This is because data saved to a hard drive leaves a lasting trail that remains even after your files have been deleted. So if you want your private information to vanish forever, you need to make sure you’re wiping your data. 

How Is Wiping Different Than Formatting? 

Formatting a hard drive is another method of trying to remove all data. This procedure allows you to carry out a fresh installation of an operating system by unlinking all of the files in the hard drive’s file system.

Unlike data wiping, however, formatting doesn’t permanently erase your information. Data will still exist on the hard drive and can be recovered by using file recovery software. This means that formatting your hard drive isn’t a secure way of protecting your data. 

Why Is Data Wiping Important?

Regardless of who you are, data wiping is important as it assures that your sensitive information won’t be viewed by others. For companies, you will also want to secure your business from external threats and ensure that your customers’ private data isn’t made public. This has been especially important since the passing of GDPR and the ‘Right to Be Forgotten’: 

  • Upon request, individuals can have their personal data deleted by companies.  
  • In the event that businesses are given an erasure order, they must permanently delete all of the data pertaining to that individual. 
  • The most secure way of responding to an erasure order is by wiping the files or drives in question.  


How Does Data Wiping Work? 

Here’s a short summary of how data wiping works, complete with explanations of some key terms. 

  • Data wiping software works by permanently erasing data -  including data remanence, which is the residual data left behind on hard drives after they have been formatted or deleted by regular means.
  • The process of wiping data can differ depending on the number of wiping passes carried out by the software. Each pass overwrites the data remanence on the hard drive and replaces it with a specified pattern – for example series of 0s and 1s – or random data.
  • A  wiping scheme is a series of wiping passes that are carried out one after another. More comprehensive wiping schemes are used, for example, when wiping data for government and military agencies. 


What Kind of Data Can I Wipe and How Do I Get Started? 

When it comes to wiping data, you’re certainly not short of options. You just need to determine what you want to wipe and find the software that will get the job done. Here are some examples of the kind of data that you can wipe: 

  • Wipe everything, including the operating system
    This is the way to go if you want to clear all data from your hard drive before decommission or disposal. Check step-by-step instructions of how to wipe everything from your hard drive.  
  • Wipe everything, excluding the operating system
    If you’re repurposing or giving away your computer and want to continue using the same operating system, you might want the OS to remain fully operational so it doesn’t need to be reinstalled. Here are detailed instructions on how to keep your OS. 
  • Wipe external hard drives
    External hard drives, such as USB sticks, are ideal tools for sharing documents. However, before giving your external hard drive to someone else, you might want to permanently remove all sensitive files previously stored.
  • Free up some space 
    If you want your computer to run faster, you can take action by permanently deleting some of your unwanted files. Click here to see how to wipe selected files. Once the files in question are removed, you should then wipe the data remanence (residual data) that is left behind. Find out more about wiping free space here.   
  • Ongoing ‘Cyber Hygiene’ 
    Every once in a while, it’s good to give computers some TLC by cleaning up some of your mess. By regularly wiping content like your Internet and local history, you can avoid data theft and improve the performance of your device. 

Hopefully you learned some basics on how to start wiping your data when no longer needed. It's easier than you might think. And once you’re in the habit of wiping, you won’t even notice those little extra steps you take to keep your data safe.

Happy Wiping! 

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Michael Waksman
Michael Waksman has been serving as CEO of Jetico since 2011, more than doubling the size of the company during his tenure. He brings more than 15 years of communications, technology and leadership experience.

At Jetico, Waksman has lead creation of the corporate identity, raising global brand awareness, building a more commercially-driven team and initiating enterprise customer relations. Jetico has maintained a wide user base throughout the U.S. Defense community, in the compliance market and for personal privacy.

Waksman is vice-chairman of the Cyber Group for the Association of Finnish Defense and Aerospace Industries. Recognized as a security and privacy advocate, he is a frequent speaker at international events, occasionally on behalf of the Finnish cyber security industry. In 2012, Waksman was honored with The Security Network's Chairman's Award for fostering collaboration between the United States and Finland. As a native New Yorker he has been living in southern Finland for over 10 years.
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