How to wipe a hard drive so your data is truly erased

You’ve just purchased a shiny new laptop, and now you’d like to donate your old computer, give it to a family member, or recycle the hardware. We applaud your sustainable choices! But wait – have you deleted all the data on your hard drive? Is it really, truly gone? Or can whomever gets your old device recover any of it?
Even if you conscientiously deleted all your files, operating systems often don’t completely wipe away the data; instead, files are kept on the disk until they are overwritten with new data, even if you can’t see them. This means deleted data can still be restored – a feature we appreciate in other circumstances, like when we accidently erase that report that’s due tomorrow. And this can even apply if you’ve emptied your computer’s recycle bin, because there are a variety of utilities out there for recovering deleted data.
Smiling young woman looks at laptop on desk covered with papers
Before you start enjoying your new laptop, do a hard wipe of your old one

The fact is that the drive has to be completely overwritten before your old data is securely destroyed, a process known as a disk wipe or a hard wipe. The most cited security standard is that the data should be overwritten three times in order to truly erase a disk.

Secure delete of your data on a computer that still works

For a laptop that can be booted up and is still working, wiping the drive is a straightforward procedure. You’ll find a utility for the secure erasing of the computer’s drive(s) right in the settings. Whether your computer is going to the recycling center or to another person, you can wipe the entire drive by following the steps for your specific computer below. Keep in mind that this is the nuclear option: Once you have wiped a disk, your data is gone for good. So check – and double-check – that you have stored any data you need on a separate device before you proceed.

Secure erase your drive(s) in Windows 10

  1. Go to your settings and click Update & Security and then Recovery
  2. Under Reset this PC, select Get started
  3. Click Remove everything
  4. To ensure that all data is removed, you’ll need to go to Change settings in the Additional settings screen. Here you should activate Clean data and Delete files from all drives.
  5. Click Confirm

Disk wipe in Windows 11

  1. Open your settings and go to Update
  2. Select Recovery in the side menu
  3. Choose Reset PC
  4. Click Remove everything
  5. Click Change settings and make sure that Clean data is activated
  6. Click Confirm

Wipe hard drive on a Mac

  1. Restart your Mac
  2. Hold down Command + R to start recovery mode
  3. Click Disk Utility
  4. In the sidebar, select the drive you want to wipe
  5. Click Erase and select a file system format
  6. Under Security Options, choose how many times the erased date should be overwritten
  7. Click Erase > Done
Keep in mind that securely wiping your entire computer will take several hours – it’s not something you can do as you rush out the door on your way to drop off your computer for donation.

Programs you can use to clean a hard drive

For versions of Windows older than 8.1., you need a third-party program to wipe your hard drive, and you may want to look into this option even if you have the latest operating system. Why? A hard drive eraser utility gives you more control about the way your hard drive gets wiped – and maybe even more peace of mind when it comes to particularly sensitive data. In many cases you can also use these tools to wipe individual files from a drive, or to wipe other devices such as USB drives. When choosing a file erasing tool, you should check to make sure it will work with your operating system (Windows, MacOS or Linux) and drive type (SSD or HDD).

Widely recommended free secure erase programs include:

How do I wipe drives if I can’t boot up my computer?

If the computer in question no longer works, wiping the drives is a different story. You may be taking it to be recycled rather than reselling it, but just because you can’t boot it up does not mean that your old data is not still there on the hard drive. So this is where you should focus: Getting to that hard drive. Good news – it’s not usually that hard to remove a hard drive from a computer.

Since each computer is different, we can’t give you exact instructions here, but in most instances it’s just a matter of opening the casing, locating the drive(s) and disconnecting it. You should be able to find a YouTube tutorial for your specific model. Alternatively, you could just take your computer to an electronics or computer repair shop, where it should only take a few minutes to remove the hard drive (and while you are there you can find out if the store also offers a drive shredding service).

Physically destroying a hard drive

What to do with the hard drive once you get it out? Why not try a DIY approach? Since your goal is to destroy it, there is not really a lot that can go wrong as long as you take the necessary safety precautions. Your first step is to put on some safety glasses and protective gloves and find a safe area to work (away from pets and small children, please!) Now you can smash the drive with a hammer or a large rock, drive nails through it, drill holes in it … anything you fantasized about when your computer ticked you off in the past. Any method will do, as long as you destroy the hard drive platters in the case of a HDD, or the flash storage chips if you have an SSD (you can see them by removing the drive cover). There might still be a few bits of retrievable data when you are done, but unless you are an international superspy, the effort required would not be worth it to anyone. Once you are done, be sure to take the remains to an electronic waste facility for safe disposal.

Did you find this article helpful? Before you take a blowtorch to that old hard drive, leave us some feedback below!

Images: 1&1/Shutterstock

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