So my father wants to get rid of a computer, and he just wants to get rid of the personal files. He wants to keep the OS and the software. Is there an easy way to do this, or does he have to delete one or a few files at a time? It’s a Windows machine, but I’m not sure what version.
Depends how paranoid he is. F’rinstance I recently bought a second-hand IBM Thinkpad, and the previous owner removed all of his data; but there was still a fair amount of “trace” in things like Photoshop’s recently-used-files list, XP’s network connections control panel, IE’s cache etc, and this was without using some kind of undelete software. The network connection properties control panel, for example, tells me that the previous owner used the WiFi at this hotel in Iceland. Which looks awesome, to be honest. Does this mean I can now control that person’s life? Not by itself. And I wouldn’t want to. But imagine if I was evil, like Tim Curry in Legend.
If he’s giving it to a friend this isn’t so much of an issue - but can you trust your friends? I remember seeing this film where all the people pretended to be friends, but they were goin’ around killin’ each other. Marlon Brando was in it… to be honest, they weren’t very friendly with each other. He was someone’s godfather, or something. So, you can’t trust your friends. I learned that.
If he’s selling it on eBay I’d be tempted to reinstall Windows from scratch. The buyer will probably be a business that refurbishes old laptops; a private buyer might be interested if he “accidentally” leaves Photoshop CS5 on the machine, but even then he might run into trouble with Adobe.
The best thing to do would be to format the hard drive, (which erases everything) then reinstall the OS and software. Then down load the largest files you can find til the HD is filled up. Format it again, reinstall, and repeat as necessary (till you feel okay). If there was any sensitive info originally this should confound any software trying to find old files. The more you rewrite, the less original data can be deciphered. Kind of like rubbing a pencil on a notepad to find out what was written on the previous page.
If this sounds like way to much work, buy a cheap new hard drive ($25?), install the OS, and trash the old HD. It depends on how much time you want to spend on it.
Unless someone with advanced specialized equipment for recovering deleted data buys it, I’d say just a single reformat and reinstall would be sufficient, don’t you?
I mean, I don’t think such people even BUY used PCs anyway, do they? Not regularly, anyway.
I’m not sure the other posters have really addressed your specific question. If the question is simply about wiping out the personal files without disturbing the OS, then, yes, you’ll have to delete each personal file one at a time. There may be a shortcut. If your father has kept all of his files in Windows’ My Documents folder, then all you’ll have to do is to erase the files inside that folder. And there is free software available (just google software to wipe files) which will make sure that the erased files cannot be accessed anymore. If the computer is a Dell, there’s a simple process to restore the computer to its original configuration with the OS intact. The safest way to insure that nothing personal remains on the computer is to format the drive, but you’ll have to reinstall the OS afterwards (a real PITA if it’s an old OS which will require also installing all the Windows updates), assuming that you have the installation discs.
All deleting files would accomplish is “hiding” them by changing the filename so that the data in question is no longer indexed or readily available. The data is still pretty easily accessible to anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of how these things work in Windows. Formatting doesn’t really do the trick either, as anyone with a basic forensics background will tell you.
If he really wants to clean things up FDisk-ing is pretty effective, but the real solution would be to perform a DoD-grade deletion (overwriting the entire disk with in several passes) and then reinstalling the OS and whatever other software he’d like to pass on.
As mentioned up-thread, be mindful of licensing restrictions. Some software is licensed to the system, while some is licensed to the purchaser.
If you’re not up for reformatting and reinstalling: At least delete all existing user accounts (and all files in each user account) and create a new user from scratch. This does a decent job of wiping out most caches, preferences and lists (the kinds of things Ashley talks about) that you might not think about when just deleting files.
Personally, I would pull the hard drive and reinstall the OS to a new hard drive. Hard drives are cheap, and I can usually find a use for the old hard drive anyway. (In fact, I just realized how silly it was for me to be keeping an old 9 GB hard drive I pulled years ago. Heck, I have flash drives with that capacity now. But I do still have some hard drives in the 40, 60 and 250 GB range that have proven useful occasionally.)
The free anti-malware program Spybot Search & Destroy has a utility that will securely delete individual folders and files, so it might be worth looking into.
The simple answer is “reinstall windows, allowing it to reformat the hard drive”. This is easy, and doesn’t take long. It’s good against anything but a pretty sophisticated attack; one that wouldn’t be worth attempting on a random computer bought on ebay.
The more complete answer is a data security issue: how important is it to eliminate the old data?
With ANY security issue, the first order of business is making sure the response is commensurate with the threat, because there is no perfect answer, and every level of higher security incurs more cost and complexity.
In this case, the most secure method here is to replace the hard drive and completely destroy (incinerate or dissolve) the old drive. But a scambler as mentioned above is probably sufficient for anything but national-security-level information, and the simple answer is fine for most of us.