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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. And this is All Tech Considered.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Today's segment strikes close to my heart, or I should say, close to my home. Because at home, we have an old computer. We don't use it, and it's taking up a lot of space - far too much space. We'd love to donate it, and we haven't, for one reason - we don't have a clue how to eradicate all that personal information that's still on the hard drive. This seemed like a perfect task for our tech advisor Omar Gallaga of The Austin American-Statesman. Hey, Omar.

OMAR GALLAGA: Hey, how are you doing today, Michele?

NORRIS: Now, I know I'm not the only one who's in this situation. Have you had this kind of problem before?

GALLAGA: I have. You know, I've been through quite a few hard drives over the years, and it's not always easy to figure out what to do with it, especially when an old one fails or when you upgrade to a new one. Your data is still on there, even if you delete the files or reformat the drive. There's always ways to recover it if somebody really sneaky wants to get in there and do that. These kinds of things happen all the time.

NORRIS: Our reporter Skye Rohde has tracked down a couple that's facing hard drive issues. Let's listen in.

SKYE ROHDE: So, the other week, I was reading a blog called dooce.com. It's written by a woman in Salt Lake City named Heather Armstrong. She's married to a guy named Jon Armstrong. They have a young daughter, another one on the way, two dogs, a nice house. And inside that house, Heather wrote, is a closet full of old computers.

Ms. HEATHER ARMSTRONG (Dooce.com): I think he brought a couple of computers, and then I had my own. Over the years, we have collected, oh, laptop after laptop after laptop, plus an iMac.

ROHDE: Jon had been holding onto the computers so he could take work off of them.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: But we can't even get onto the hard drives anymore because it doesn't work with the monitors. And we've just waited too long, and the technology has gotten ahead of us.

ROHDE: The Armstrongs want to recycle their computers, but Heather has some things on her old PC that she'd rather not have other people see.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: It was a computer that I was using when he and I started instant messaging each other every night. And oh dear, how embarrassing that would be if anyone were to find those.

ROHDE: Jon Armstrong admits he's a little paranoid about handing his old computers over to a recycling center.

Mr. JON ARMSTRONG: I definitely don't trust them with the hard drive. I don't trust that they'll do anything to ensure that my data is erased.

ROHDE: Jon knows how to reformat the old Macintosh computers, but he's not as familiar with the PCs. He's going to try removing the hard drives before recycling, but if he can't…

Mr. ARMSTRONG: I will drill into the drives and just wreak havoc with my drill bit. Just get a big old drill bit and just, brr, go in and destroy the drive inside the computer.

NORRIS: That's Jon Armstrong talking to our reporter Skye Rhode. And we're going to go back to Skye in a little bit, but first, I want to follow up with our tech expert Omar Gallaga. Omar, I feel for Heather and Jon. When I thought about doing this, I first went to the web to get advice, I went to the Apple store, I went to Best Buy. Everyone seemed to suggest that they'd love to help me, but they'd acknowledge that this is not easy to do.

The sentiment was summed up in a web posting I found that said the most secure way to safeguard your privacy is to remove the hard drive from the laptop and apply a large hammer. It sounds like Jon Armstrong found much the same thing when he talked about picking up his drill bit. So, if you don't go to your toolbox to try to solve this problem, what else should you do?

GALLAGA: Yeah, the old folk remedy used to be to take the platter out of there and run a magnet over it. That at least scrambles the data around. It really depends on how sensitive your data is and how far you're willing to go to protect it. You can, as they said in the report, format the disk in Windows, Mac OS or Linux, but that doesn't always erase what's on it unless you pick a secure method of formatting.

On Mac OS, for instance, there's an option to do a 35-pass erase. And what that does is it goes to through hard drive and erases it 35 times over - overwriting that data. There's also software in the market with names like WipeDrive and Drive Erase Pro. And their sole purpose is to clear what's on your data completely and ensure your privacy.

NORRIS: Okay, that's what they say, you know, on the box - said that they're going to clear all your data, but does the software actually work?

GALLAGA: Right. Well, I looked at reviews of these products on sites like Amazon.com where people have bought them and used them, and in most cases it does do what it says it's going to do. But there's always a problem when you're dealing with older hard drives that may have problems or disk errors or physical damage on them.

So, not everyone who reviewed the products had a stress-free experience. One person on Amazon complained that instead of erasing a data drive, the software accidentally wiped out their whole operating system.

NORRIS: Oh boy, it sounds like software is not necessarily a reliable option. Any other products worth looking into?

GALLAGA: Well, one product that I found that was interesting is called the Wiebetech Drive eRazer. That's eRazer, R-A-Z-E-R. It's a small box that plugs directly into a hard drive and wipes the data, and you don't have to deal with any software. If you have an older computer that no longer works, for instance, and you want to clear the hard drive inside before you donate or recycle the computer, it's a good option.

It doesn't require any computer, and there are adapters that plug into virtually any kind of hard drive, even the smaller notebook drives. The eRazer runs about a $100 to $200, depending on what model and adapters you buy, but it works with virtually anything.

NORRIS: Oh my goodness, it sounds like I should rent an Abrams tank or something and just run over it. That, to me, is absolutely safe.

GALLAGA: You know, the drill is sounding better and better the more we talk about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: All right, let's say that you've taken the plunge. You either use the software, or you purchase the tech drive eRAZER and it happened to work and at this point you're ready to recycle that old computer. We're going to go back to our reporter Skye Rohde to find out what happens to those old computers.

ROHDE: If you're in Los Angeles, your old computer might end up at Direct Computer Disposal. It calls itself one of the top five computer recyclers in California. And it takes in more than 3.5 million pounds of e-waste a month. Some of that comes from companies such as Google, Dell, U.S. Bank and Cal National Bank.

First, the computer dismantlers take apart the CPUs, the plastic, the memory chips, the power supplies. Each component gets put in a bin, and the hard drives go to Carlos Salgado. He says he wipes 300 to 500 hard drives a week.

Mr. CARLOS SALGADO: We'll take it to our wiping station. We'll run a program such as, like, WipeDrive. And in this program right here, we have options to delete the information from here. Once it's wiped, it'll test it for us to make sure, you know, it's consistent, it works.

Mr. LEON AVEDIKIAN (Vice President Sales and Marketing, Direct Computer Disposal): Every hard drive that we receive, obviously, in the facility, we have a software that we use. It's used by the Department of Defense.

ROHDE: Leon Avedikian handles sales and marketing for the company.

Mr. AVEDIKIAN: So we do a complete wiping of the hard drives. It brings everything down to zeros. And at the end of the day, we take the hard drives and we run them through a shredding machine.

ROHDE: Avedikian says the shredded computer parts are all sold to downstream vendors. He also admits that not every recycling company shreds the hard drives it collects. Some send computer parts to landfills, or resells them or ship them overseas.

Mr. AVEDIKIAN: It's a very, very big industry, and unfortunately, some recyclers out there try to find the easy way out, for the quick cash, we call it, but that's their type of business. But we do everything in an environmentally safe way.

ROHDE: So, nervous hard drive owners, take note. You can actually watch your hard drive being wiped in real time on Direct Computer Disposal's Web site.

From NPR News, I'm Skye Rohde.

NORRIS: And for all our listeners that are eager to say good riddance to their computers, Omar, where should they go if they want more information?

GALLAGA: Well, there's lots of options for erasing a hard drive, whether it be software or hardware. And I'm going to post links to a lot of that information on the All Tech Considered blog at npr.org/alltech. We'll help you make sure nobody gets that credit card information or gets to your private e-mails.

NORRIS: Or those love letters that the Armstrongs were talking about. Thank you, Omar.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GALLAGA: Indeed.

NORRIS: Omar Gallaga is with us most Mondays. He also writes and blogs for The Austin American-Statesman.

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