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What to do before you abandon your PC

Before you say goodbye to a PC, follow this list of to-do items to ensure that no one gains sensitive information about you that you do not want them to know.
By DPA | None, Jay Dougherty
UPDATED ON FEB 21, 2008 01:03 PM IST

If you've been using a computer for some time and need to abandon it - either because you're leaving a job or moving to another machine - you need to be concerned about security. Simply put, once you're gone, a lot of information can be retrieved about you just by inspecting the digital traces you leave behind.

So before you say goodbye to a PC, follow this list of to-do items to ensure that no one gains information about you that they do not need to know.

The applications on your PC keep a record of almost everything you do. By default, your Web browser probably leaves tracks from a lot of the sites you've visited, stores the user names you use online, the files you've downloaded, and even passwords, if you allow it.

Many business applications also keep track of the documents you've last worked on or edited. "Histories" are useful to those who need quick recall of what they last worked on, but they're anathema to those who require privacy.

There are ways to selectively clear usage history with each of the applications that keep such records. But because it's difficult to remember exactly which applications are keeping a record of how you've used a computer, a better solution is to turn to a tool that specialises in removing traces of every document you've worked on or website you've visited.

Clear History, for instance, removes the history of activity kept by most popular applications. It can clear not only document and Internet history but also can ferret down into more arcane data and registry information, removing any record of your activity.

If the PC you've been using contains sensitive files, it's not enough simply to delete them. Even if you delete a file and subsequently remove it from the recycle bin, a savvy user can reconstruct deleted data and potentially gain access to files that you thought were gone for good.

So to delete sensitive files, you have to turn to something more robust than the delete key. Software-based file shredders fit the bill. Most of these applications work by scrambling the contents of a file using special algorithms.

Your e-mail probably holds plenty of information you'd rather not see fall into the hands of someone who comes along to use a computer after you. So it's critical that you know how to destroy e-mail you do not want others to see.

First, though, that deleting e-mail from a machine that has been connected to a corporate network probably does not actually remove all traces of messages you've revived or sent. Many companies are required by law to keep copies of the e-mail their employees generate, so your best course of action is to plan ahead and never send sensitive information by e-mail from work.

You can delete e-mail messages individually using the Delete key on particular messages. Remember, though, that deleting e-mail messages this way just sends them to the Deleted E-mail folder, where they will need to be deleted again. Holding down the Shift key while deleting messages sends them directly to the recycle bin in Outlook and Outlook Express.

If you have the option to completely wipe out a hard drive before leaving a machine or returning it, take advantage of it. A study by researchers at Britain's Glamorgan University showed that more than half of the used hard drives purchased from eBay contained retrievable personal and financial information.

Reformatting an old hard drive isn't enough, since even a standard reformat can leave the data on a disk vulnerable to retrieval by savvy users.

So you need to look into disk shredding tools before passing on a hard drive that may contain sensitive information. As with file shredders, you'll find plenty of commercial utilities that can accomplish this task, but capable free ones exist as well.

Look to the popular Darik's Boot and Nuke (http://dban.sourceforge.net), for instance. This programme runs from a boot disk or drive and proceeds to securely erase any hard drive that it finds on a system.

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