If you’re thinking about buying a new computer, you may be wondering what to do with your old one: do you toss it, let someone else in the family use it, or just hide it in the closet? Well, whichever you decide, there are some important things to know, and do, to ensure the security and privacy of your personal information on that computer.

What’s on that old hard drive?

There is uniquely identifiable information on your computer’s hard drive, even if you don’t store things like tax returns, medical information or account numbers directly on it. Things like usernames, passwords, internet browsing history, online form quick-entry info and even data from your cloud storage providers like OneDrive or iCloud are all saved to a computer’s disk automatically—making old disposed-of computers a potential target of identity thieves.

Deleting doesn’t really help.

Did you know that when you “delete” a file on your computer (like before you dispose of the computer), that file is not really gone? Basically, all that happens is you tell the operating system (Windows or MacOS) it can now consider the space where the file lives as free space for the next time you need room on the hard drive. The “deleted” file is still on your hard drive. This makes disposing of your old computer particularly tricky if you don’t want to share all those old files.

Built-in ways to securely repurpose that old computer

Windows computers

  1. If your old computer is running Windows 8 or newer (2012 – present), there is a built-in way to securely wipe the drive. Simply follow the process to factory reset Windows, and be sure to select the option to “fully clean the drive.”
  2. If you have a pre-2012 computer that is still running, it’s not quite as easy. In this scenario, Microsoft recommends either taking the machine to a Microsoft-certified refurbisher to have the hard drive securely deleted, or using a third-party utility like DBAN to securely delete the old hard drive.

MacOS computers

  1. On Mac computers simply restart your machine and hold down these buttons as it powers-on: Option + Command + R. This will open the MacOS Utilities menu. Simply follow the Erase process under the Disk Utility menu. MacTip.com takes you step-by-step through the process.

And finally

At this point our final piece of advice is not tech-related: don’t just toss that old computer in the trash! There are all kinds of metals and acids in a computer that are really bad for the environment if they are left to sit in a landfill. Always take that old computer to a certified recycler who will dispose of the toxic components appropriately, and even recycle the portions that can be re-used. Check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s electronic recycling page for more info.