Removing Data is Important

Did you know that reformatting your hard drive or deleting files does not permanently erase the information stored there? The next person who uses your computer could use a relatively simple software package to recover data you thought you had erased. To make sure all information is permanently removed from surplus government computers in Virginia, the Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA) issued a statewide standard for the security and disposal of surplus computer equipment. The standard outlines the steps that Executive Branch agencies and public institutions of higher education must take to disable permanently access to all information.

Read the standard, Removal of Commonwealth Data from Surplus Computer Hard Drives and Electronic Media.

Who should do this?

Everyone! Although the standard is mandatory for Executive Branch agencies and public institutions of higher education, everyone, including the public, businesses, and local governments, is encouraged to erase all information from computer equipment and storage media before throwing it away, recycling it, or selling or giving your computer to someone else.

How do I permanently erase information on my computer?

You can download software from the Internet. According to the manufacturers' claims, the following software meets the VITA standard:

What does the software do?

Software programs, like the ones listed above, overwrite information on your hard drive. This means that the data you stored will be replaced with patterns of meaningless data. The software first places a pattern of meaningless data on the entire hard drive--even parts that do not have data saved on them. Next, the software places the complement of the first pattern on the entire hard drive. Finally, in its third "sweep" of the hard drive, the software randomly writes ones and zeroes. The hard drive can be used again with this process, but none of the data you stored on it originally will be recoverable.

What if I cannot run software on my computer?

Even if your computer isn't working properly, you still want to remove data that you do not want anyone else to have. There are two things you can do:

  1. You can use a large, electronic magnet called a degausser (pronounced dee-GOWS-er). A degausser applies a reverse magnetic field to erase magnetic media. This usually means that no one, including you, can use the hard drive again. Please note that extreme care should be used when using degaussers since this equipment can cause extreme damage to nearby telephones, monitors, and other electronic equipment.

  2. You can physically destroy the hard drive by drilling holes in it or smashing it. Please be careful and be sure to wear safety equipment, like goggles.