How to Scrub Personal Information From Your Electronics
Wipe your data clean before recycling computers, smartphones, tablets
These days, the “circular economy” — an umbrella term for prioritizing the five Rs to reuse, repair, refurbish, resell and recycle existing products — is getting a lot of buzz.
This practice is good for your wallet and Mother Earth. It reduces waste and emissions and encourages repurposing existing items, which can help your local community.
But one big roadblock can get in the way of reselling or recycling your consumer electronics: the personal data that may reside on it. If you think you’re deleting files and folders and emptying your device's recycling bin or going a step further by reformatting the drive, residual data can still be accessed if you haven’t deleted properly.
Consider your private documents, perhaps with financial data and lists of bank accounts and passwords, or maybe your personal photos and home movies. You don’t want strangers poring over any of these.
The solution isn’t to avoid donating, reselling, trading in or recycling your aging devices. Instead, taking a few simple steps before they leave your hands will ensure all of your data is removed completely.
First things first: Back it up
Before you do anything, back up info and 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.
If you’re getting rid of a computer and you have a lot of files to copy, pick up an inexpensive external hard drive, with prices starting at about $53 for 1 terabyte (TB) of storage or $70 for 2TB. One terabyte equals 1,000 gigabytes (GB), 1 million megabytes or 1 billion kilobytes, to give you an idea of its space using common file sizes on your computer. 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, which might cost you about $15 for 128GB.
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You can also 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 since your device may not have a USB-A port to connect to an external drive. But companies do make flash drives with USB-B micro, USB-C and Lightning connectors, such as the SanDisk iXpand family of flash drives.
Some Android phones and tablets also support a removable microSD memory card. Or you can connect your smartphone or tablet to your Windows PC to perform a backup via desktop software like iTunes or the 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.
Before you dispose of a phone, log out of services such as email and social media. Remember to take out the thumbnail-sized chip that allows your phone service to recognize you. It's called a subscriber identity module card, better known as a SIM card, and not only contains your phone number but hundreds of your contacts and potentially other identifying information.
If your Android device has a micro SD 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.
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 your phone was purchased within the past several years, simply choosing to restore or factory reset your device will work just 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 recover your data.
First, be sure to turn off all services, starting with Find My iPhone — Settings | [Account Name] | Find My | Find My iPhone and tap the toggle switch to gray; you'll have to enter your Apple ID password to fully turn it off. Sign out of other devices, too, such as iMessage, Settings | Messages | Send & Receive | the link that is your Apple ID 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. Now choose Delete Account. That will sign you out of your Apple ID on that device, too.
Now start the wipe process by going to Settings | General | Transfer or Reset iPhone | Erase All Content and Settings. Then tap the Continue at the bottom of the screen and follow the prompts. The process is similar for any iPad since 2011, which also offer 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 existing 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.
If you’ve got an older Android operating system, 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, you’ll go to Settings | Lock screen and security | Protect encrypted data.
Be sure to sign out and 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 | Reset. Or search for the word reset, and the results should take you to the correct section.
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 pull it off.
Assuming the computer is working, to get rid of information from its internal hard drive or solid state drive, you can download “shredding” software, as it’s sometimes referred to, such as CBL Data Shredder or Eraser. Both of those options are free, and they carefully comb through every sector of the drive to clear all your 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’
The macOS Monterey operating system, which debuted in 2021, includes an all-new Erase All Contents and Settings feature, just like iPhone and iPad. That makes it really easy to prep a Mac for donation, hand-me-down, trade-in or recycling.
Simply go to System Preferences and select Erase All Contents and Settings from the menu bar. If you aren't on the most recent operating system, you'll have to go through a few more steps similar to scrubbing your iPhone. Apple has separate details for those using the Catalina OS and machines on an earlier macOS.
Chromebook: Perform a ‘Powerwash’
Google calls performing a secure factory reset on its Chromebook internal hard drives a Powerwash. First, sign out of your Chromebook with your Gmail handle. Then press and hold Ctrl + Alt + Shift + r simultaneously.
Select Restart from the list of options that pops up. Then select Powerwash | Continue and follow the instructions. After the Powerwash is complete and the computer restarts, do not sign into your Google account again. Just shut down the computer.
Marc Saltzman is a contributing writer who covers personal technology. His work also appears in USA Today and other national publications. He hosts the podcast series Tech It Out and is the author of several books, including Apple Watch for Dummies.