The importance of cleaning your harddrives

Since I am the family tech geek, I often get to “inherit” people’s computers when they get new ones. It scares me every time, because even those I thought were computer savy enough seems to forget one important thing: cleaning the drives!

It might not seem like a big deal, but you can find out a lot about a person if you get access to their computer for just a few moments. All those nestled folders, secrets hidden deep in the nooks and crannies of the drive. Things you don’t want to know about the people around you, things that will make you look at them differently. That is the exact reason why you don’t want people to get access to your computer, not even for a few moments.

Yet that is exactly what you give others when you pass on a computer to them and don’t nuke the hard drives before you do. Often the person knows enough to clear the system drive by re-installing the operating system, but miss that any of the other drives may contain backups. Often times, these backups have been made manually by simply copying the whole system drive into a single folder on any of the storage drives. There are many things hidden there, for example:

  • Pictures and film clips taken with a smartphone with some form of computer synchronization
  • Dropbox files and media
  • The entire content of “My Documents” (including all pictures, film clips, downloaded files and received files from chat programs)
  • Chat logs
  • Entire mail directories
  • Private documents, such as bills, bank statements, private letters, private pictures etc.

The phone synchronization is particularly scary, as the pictures and clips there are spread among many folders. Every app you’ve ever downloaded keeps its files in separate folders, so even if you have cleaned out the DCIM folder (where pictures mostly end up), you might still have private stuff laying around. It’s not enough to go into the phone’s built in file explorer, that won’t give you access to all files. That hidden cam app you got to stalk your neighbor (happens more than you want to believe), that note app you got to remind you what to tell your psychologist, the movie edit app you used to edit that private movie clip you sent to your boyfriend… all of them may still have their entire content hidden in these backups.

You don’t really need to go that deep to find stuff you really don’t want to share. Often times you only need to go to the “Users” folder and do a quick search for “.jpg”, “.3gp” or “.odt” to find some really nasty stuff. If the user wasn’t tech savy at all, it might even be a folder right on the desktop. I’ve done cleanups for relatives when they’ve inherited computers from friends that passed away. There’s a good reason why they call someone else to clear the computer, because you really don’t want to see those nude pictures of your friend, or the pictures from his trip to Thailand… and least of all you want to stumble on his porn folder!

It’s not all porn though, seemingly innocent things can be harmful to know as well. I have found incriminating documents on many drives I’ve gotten second hand. Text documents outlining psychological disorders, copies of bank statements, mail exchanges that could be very incriminating, copies of criminal records, lists of literature that nobody should know you’re reading and chat logs from a cheating spouse are not rare to find.


So please, before you hand a computer over to someone else, even if you trust that person, just right-click each drive in the file explorer and select “Format drive”! This will clear everything out, with one exception: Windows!

It is possible to recover files from a Windows formated drive, but you need the skill and the right software for it. The receiver has to have malicious intent to do this, but just to be safe, get yourself any of the free softwares that completely nukes the drive to prevent this. My suggestion would be to check this list. It contains 31 free data destruction programs!

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