How to Clean Hard Drives You Don’t Even Know You Have

It’s a fact that few of us want to even consider, but computers are practically everywhere.  From that computer on your wrist that tells you the time to the computer in your phone, the computers in your video monitor to the computers in your car, seemingly the entire civilized world has countless computers at work.

It may seem a bit of a surprise how many hard drives you’ve got, whirring silently, regularly storing your data.  Consider, for example, that fax machine.   For many years, high end fax machines have been scanning images of the documents you send, writing them to a hard drive, and then faxing the pages from the stored images.  It makes things faster – in the old days, your pages would be scanned at the same time the image was transmitted – it made for a slow, unpleasant experience – especially if you had a lot of pages to send.  Newer machines shorten the wait – pages are scanned onto the hard drive very quickly.

It’s the same with photocopiers – the images are scanned, saved on the hard drive, and then printed.

Multifunction printers – models that not only print, but send and receive faxes, and function as scanners, may also have hard drives, onto which they store the images being sent or received.

Printers, scanners, and fax machines designed for use by organizations will often have notebook (2.5”) or desktop (3.5”) hard drives embedded inside them.  Machines designed for small offices may write the data to flash memory or, perhaps, to 1” hard drives.

With all the images that organizations scan, print, or fax being stored on the hard drives that are embedded into these machines, how can an organization safely retire these machines?   The data on the hard drives can be extremely sensitive and, depending on the organization, the discovery of the data on those drives could be calamitous.

Selling these devices, returning them at the end of a lease, or even donating them to an organization or people in need can put your organization at significant risk, if the hard drives are not treated properly.  Now that the public is becoming aware of these risks, it’s not unlikely that the device manufacturers will embed a ‘clean hard drive’ option to its menu systems, but will make it hard to find, so that you REALLY have to want to delete all the data before you do it.  At this point – especially since the device makers haven’t added such a feature – the question will be how WELL the drives will be cleaned.

There are tools today that enable people to take a drive that has been ‘erased’, and recover the data from the drive.  Erasing or reformatting a hard drive often means little more than deleting the index files that track where each piece of each file is stored.  The data may be left completely intact – what’s missing is the roadmap to those files.

Methods like Secure Erase and various levels of overwrite are available to prevent the retrieval of data from a used disc.

In the case of printers, copiers, scanners, and fax machines that use hard drives for image storage, your first step before disposing of the device would be to open it and remove the hard drive.  You can still dispose of the device, with drive intact, but you should sanitize the drive first.  (Sanitizing the drive usually means wiping the data off the drive).

Note that, in some cases, the drives will also have the operating system files on the drive, so you may want to copy these onto another drive before sanitizing the drive.  To do this, you may want to attach the drive to a computer, which can copy the system software, or you may back up the drive, and restore only the system files after the drive is wiped clean.

There are a few ways to sanitize a drive.  A drive can be attached to a computer, and a program run that will wipe the files of the drive and may apply one or more levels of sanitization to the drive.  Such an approach may take many hours  – especially if the drive is large –and may tie up the computer while the drive is being wiped.

A second approach would be to use an external device to do the actual sanitization.  This way, without a connection to the computer, the external device will do the hard work, and the computer will be free to function normally.

Aleratec offers three Hard Drive Duplicators that include the Sanitize feature, offering a choice of sanitization levels.  The 1:1 HDD Cruiser Hard Disk Drive Duplicator and Sanitizer allows you to sanitize one or two SATA hard drives at a time.  An added benefit is the ability to connect the Drive Duplicator to a computer, using an included USB cable.  This allows you to run the duplicator as a drive enclosure for one or two hard drives – and will enable you to copy the system files from a scanner, copier or fax machine’s hard drive onto the computer, sanitize the drive, and then write the system files back onto the hard drive.

For organizations with a higher number of hard drives that it wishes to sanitize, there’s the 1:5 HDD Cruiser Hard Disk Drive Duplicator and Sanitizer, which can sanitize as many as six hard drives at once, and the ultimate hard drive duplicator and sanitizer, the 1:11 HDD Copy Cruiser Hard Disk Drive Duplicator and Sanitizer, which can sanitize as many as 12 drives at once.

Using the Aleratec HDD Duplicators and sanitizers can simplify the task of sanitizing the hard drives embedded into various devices, making them safe to discard or donate, while leaving your computers available for computing.

Mark Brownstein is a technology journalist and technology consultant who specializes in explaining and interpreting new technologies, and clarifying how to integrate these new products into current systems. He has been Editor-In-Chief at computer technology and networking publications, has held significant editorial positions at major technology magazines, and is a frequent contributor to various technology magazines. He has written seven books. He is Microsoft Certified, and spends much of his time testing hardware and software products, running his own networks, and learning the best ways to get computer systems running and to keep them running.

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