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How to Scrub Personal Information From Your Electronics

Wipe your data clean before recycling computers, smartphones, tablets

spinner image a hand holding a pencil erasing 1s and 0s representing data
Getty Images

Prioritizing the five Rs — repair, reuse, refurbish, resell and recycle — is environmentally sound, good for your wallet and good for Mother Earth.

It reduces waste and emissions. But one big roadblock can get in the way of reselling or recycling your consumer electronics: the personal data inside the devices.

Deleting files and folders and emptying your device’s recycling bin, or going a step further by reformatting the drive, won’t remove residual data if you haven’t deleted properly.

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You don’t want a stranger accessing bank account numbers, financial data, password listspersonal photos, selfies or other private documents.

The solution isn’t to shove your aging devices in a junk drawer and avoid donating or recycling. Instead, take a few steps before they leave your hands to ensure your data is gone for good.

First things first: Back it up

Before you do anything, back up your information and any media from the desktop computer, laptop, phone or tablet you’re getting rid of. This includes appointments on your calendar, contacts, documents, important emails, notes, photos, videos and web bookmarks.

At-home option. If you’re getting rid of your laptop or replacing it with a new computer and you have a lot of files to copy, pick up an inexpensive external hard drive. Prices start at about $45 for 1 terabyte (TB) of storage or roughly $60 for 2TB.

To give you an idea of how much space common file sizes use on a personal computer, think of it this way: One terabyte equals 1,000 gigabytes (GB), 1 million megabytes (MB) or 1 billion kilobytes (KB).

If you don’t have a lot of files, you might be able to get away with a USB flash drive, also called a thumb drive or jump drive. It might cost you about $13 for 128GB.

In the cloud. You can upload files and folders to online cloud services, which give you about 5GB of storage for free, depending on the service. You can pay for more storage with a monthly subscription.

To back up your smartphones and tablets, cloud services are the easiest solution because your device may not have a USB-A port to connect to an external drive. Companies make flash drives with USB-B micro, USB-C and Lightning connectors.

Some Android phones and tablets support a removable microSD memory card. Or you can connect your smartphone or tablet to your Windows PC to perform a backup using desktop software such as iTunes or integrated Apple apps on a Mac. Chromebook users can connect an Android phone to the computer via a USB cable and drag and drop the files over.

Don’t forget the SIM. Before you dispose of a cellphone or smartphone, log out of sites where you’ve signed in, including your email service and social media. Remember to take out the thumbnail-sized chip that allows your phone service to recognize you.

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It’s called a subscriber identity module, better known as a SIM card, and not only contains your phone number but hundreds of your contacts and perhaps other identifying information. Some newer smartphones don’t require a physical SIM card.

Instead they work via a virtual eSIM. Look for information from your carrier or phone’s manufacturer if you don’t see a little tray that pops out of the device with your SIM.

If your Android device has a microSD memory card, remove that. It probably has some of your apps, movies, music and photos stored on it if you have only a small amount of storage built into your phone.

Video: How to Scrub Personal Information From Your Phone

How to delete data from an iPhone, iPad

Once you’ve backed up everything to two different storage devices, just in case, or an external drive and a cloud service, it’s time to properly remove all data from your device. If you purchased your phone within the past decade, choosing to restore or factory reset your device will work fine.

iPhones running iOS 5, which debuted in 2012, or later include hardware encryption when you set a passcode. This makes it extremely difficult for anyone who tries to access your data.

If you're prompted to do so, be sure to turn off all services, starting with Find My iPhone. Go to Settings ⚙️ | [Account Name] | Find My | Find My iPhone and tap the toggle switch to gray or green, depending on your iPhone model. You’ll have to enter your Apple ID password to fully turn it off. Sign out of other devices, too, such as iMessage by tapping Settings ⚙️ | Messages | Send & Receive | your Apple ID link at the bottom | Sign Out.

Then sign out of iCloud completely by going to Settings ⚙️ | [Account Name] | Sign Out all the way at the end. Type in your Apple ID password and choose Delete Account. That will sign you out of your Apple ID on that device, too.

spinner image three screenshots from an iphone that show how to erase all data from the phone
After you’ve signed out of Find My iPhone, iMessage and iCloud, you’ll need to follow a several-step process to erase all traces of your data on your iPhone before reselling or recycling.

Now start the wipe process by going to Settings ⚙️ | General | Transfer or Reset iPhone | Erase All Content and Settings. Then tap Continue at the bottom of the screen and follow the prompts. The process is similar for an iPad, which also offers encryption when you set up a passcode. To completely wipe your tablet clean, go to Settings ⚙️ | General | Transfer or Reset iPad | Erase All Content and Settings.

How to delete data from an Android

If your phone runs Android 6.0 or newer — any model since 2015 — your data will already be encrypted by default. So you don’t need to do anything other than a factory reset.

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If your Android operating system is older, you’ll want to add encryption. That means the phone will require someone to have a PIN or password to access your data.

In most cases, go to Settings ⚙️ | Security & privacy | Encrypt phone. It can take a while for this process to complete, so be sure to have your phone plugged into an AC outlet. On a Samsung Galaxy, go to Settings ⚙️ | Lock screen and security | Protect encrypted data.

Be sure to sign out, then delete your accounts, such as Google and Samsung on a Galaxy device, just to be safe. Now go ahead and do the factory reset, which is usually found in Settings.

spinner image three screenshots from an android phone that show how to erase all data from the phone and revert to factory settings
After you’ve signed out from your mail and social media accounts on your Android phone, look for the Factory data reset function. When you tap the Reset button at the bottom of screen — shown is a Galaxy A32 — you’ll start the process of scrubbing your personal information from the smartphone.

Tap Settings ⚙️ | Reset. Or search for the word reset, and the results should take you to the correct section. For example, with Samsung devices, it’s under Settings ⚙️ | About phone | Reset.

Windows PC: Use ‘shredding’ software to scrub

Properly removing data from a Windows computer can be a bit trickier, but free software is available to help guide you through the process.

Assuming the computer is working, to get rid of information from its internal hard drive or solid state drive, you can download “shredding” software such as CBL Data Shredder, Eraser or WipeFile. All are free and carefully comb through every sector of the drive to clear all data, making it inaccessible to anyone who attempts to retrieve your info.

This process can take a while. If the computer won’t turn on to use shredding software, you may want to remove the internal storage and recycle the rest of the machine.

To access data from an old drive, you can turn the internal storage into an external one by picking up an inexpensive enclosure kit, which lets you then plug it into the USB port of a new Chromebook, Mac or PC.

Mac: ‘Erase all Contents and Settings’

Like the operating system that came before it, macOS Sonoma, which debuted in fall 2023, includes an Erase All Contents and Settings feature, just like iPhone and iPad. That makes it easy to prep a Mac for donation, hand-me-down, trade-in or recycling.

Click the small Apple icon in the top left of the screen, then select System Settings. Now click General in the sidebar Transfer or Reset on the right. Select Erase All Content and Settings.

If your Mac is a few years old and you haven’t updated the operating system in a while, you may have to go through a few more steps.

Chromebook: Perform a Powerwash

Google calls a secure factory reset on its Chromebook internal hard drive a Powerwash. First, sign out of your Chromebook with your Gmail handle. Then press and hold Ctrl + Alt + Shift + r at the same time.

If this keyboard shortcut doesn’t work, it means you haven’t signed out of your Chromebook yet.

If you’re having trouble signing out, you can do it another way. From your Chromebook’s home screen, click the small circle in the lower left of your Chromebook screen to bring up a list of installed apps. Type Powerwash in the search bar | Enter, or do a right-click on your mouse over the word Powerwash to get to this section.

Once you’re in the Powerwash section, click Reset. You likely will see a pop-up that reads, “A restart is required before your device can be reset with Powerwash.” Click Restart to continue.

After the Powerwash is complete and the computer restarts, don’t sign in to your Google account again. Just shut down the computer.

This story, originally published April 18, 2022, has been updated to reflect new apps and technology for removing content.

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