HDD and SSD - How to Safely Wipe Your Hard Drive

Thomas Köhler

Whether selling your PC or recycling an old laptop, the last thing you want is for a stranger to gain access to any personal data these might contain. For this reason, we strongly advise thoroughly wiping all data from hard drives you plan on getting rid of. Below, we'll walk you through how to do this safely and efficiently.

Why Should I Wipe My Hard Drive?

When getting rid of any device that stored personal information at one point in time, you should wipe its hard drive to protect yourself. In the worst case, criminals might use unwiped hard drives to engage in identity theft causing financial and other kinds of damage.

The same applies for businesses, arguably to an even greater extent, since the hard drives on organizational computers might contain customer data, internal (privileged) information, or even trade secrets. Whatever the case, none of this data should ever fall into the hands of a third party. Data theft is not only dangerous for customers, it can also result in a loss of reputation or image.

Deleting Isn't Enough

Deleting files and then emptying your Recycle Bin is, unfortunately, not enough. This is because plenty of data remains on your hard drive even after you've deleted it and what's worse, can be restored with a minimum amount of effort. Even formatting your hard drive isn't the be-all-end-all many consider it to be. The silver lining is that if you accidentally deleted any files, thanks to the widespread availability of specialized recovery software, you can likely retrieve the data.

To make sure that your data can't be recovered when getting rid of a PC or laptop, you'll need to expend a bit more effort when deleting files. Below, we'll introduce you to a variety of methods for accomplishing this.

How To Wipe Your Hard Drive

Before actually wiping your hard drive, it's important to determine whether it's an HDD or an SSD. These two types of hard drive read and write data by varying means, and as such, must be wiped differently.

HDD vs. SSD

HDDs and SSDs differ primarily in their design. Whereas an HDD writes and reads data from rotating magnetic disks, an SSD utilizes flash storage. Generally speaking, SSDs are considerably faster and owing to the absence of moving parts, quieter. An SSHD is a hybrid hard drive, making use of conventional HDD technology supported with fast flash storage. Wiping data from SSDs and SSHDs is more difficult since the hard drives spread files across different storage blocks. Accordingly, when overwriting these, there's no guarantee that all of the existing files will be deleted.

For that reason, selecting the right approach to wiping a hard drive depends on what kind of drive it is. In the next section, we'll show you how to safely and thoroughly wipe both HDDs and SSDs/SSHDs.

Properly Wipe an HDD

So long as you have the proper software (most of the time freeware), wiping data from an HDD is fairly straightforward. In this guide, we used CCleaner and DBAN, two free solutions.

Wipe an HDD With CCleaner

Open CCleaner and go to Options > Settings. Then select "Secure Deletion" from the menu.

With CCleaner, a freeware solution, wiping a hard drive is fairly easy.

1. After activating "Secure Deletion", go to Tools > Drive Wiper to wipe your hard drive.

"Drive Wiper" is hidden amongst the program's Tools.

2. Next, choose the hard drive that should be wiped, select "Very Complex Overwrite" in the second drop-down menu, and click on "Wipe".

All that's left to do now is to start wiping.

3. Your hard drive will be completely wiped.

Wipe an HDD With DBAN

DBAN, short for "Darik's Boot and Nuke", is, like CCleaner, also free to download. Unlike CCleaner though, DBAN is an ISO file, meaning that you'll need to execute the program via bootable CD or USB drive when starting your PC.

After pressing "Enter", you can start wiping your hard drive. DBAN is available for free.

Simply set the desired parameters and wait for DBAN to finish wiping your hard drive.

Wipe an SSD or SSHD

Completely wiping an SSD or SSHD is somewhat more complicated than an HDD since data is deposited in different blocks of flash storage according to "Wear Levelling". This means that multiple overwriting passes on the hard drive won't necessarily catch all of the files you've stored on the device. With that said, there are some ways to completely wipe SSDs and SSHDs.

Wiping an SSD Using Firmware/Developer Tools

Modern hard drives can be wiped by executing the ATA command "Enhanced Security Erase". The German Federal Office for Information Security recommends the following:

"Utilize the tools provided by the hardware's developer for wiping a hard drive, including any defective storage areas. This is particularly recommended for SSDs or SSHDs."

This should be done in tandem with the classic approach to wiping a hard drive (overwriting data). Developers often provide special firmware capable of performing this with their SSDs, including:

Firmware, such as the SSD Toolbox offered by Corsair, makes it possible to wipe a hard drive with just a few clicks.

Wiping With Parted Magic

Should no firmware or developer tools be available for your SSD or SSHD, you can use Parted Magic. Even though it was developed for Linux, the tool works on other operating systems (even apart from Windows) but must be executed via a USB stick. As such, it operates similarly to DBAN. The program is open source but costs $11.

Parted Magic costs $11, or $39 for a year's subscription.

Like DBAN, Parted Magic also starts when you boot up your PC or laptop, so long as you've loaded it onto a bootable USB stick or CD.

When the software opens, select "Disk Eraser" and choose "Internal Secure Erase". After that, identify the SSD you want to wipe and lean back. Within a short period of time, your SSD should be completely wiped.

Physically Destroy the Hardware

Should deleting files via software be too much of a hassle, or if you simply want to ensure that your data will never be recoverable, you can physically destroy the hard drive in question. Doing this properly entails four steps:

  1. Turn your computer or laptop off. Disconnect the power cable (or charging cable and battery, if on a laptop), and remove the hard drive.
  2. Unscrew and open the hard drive.
  3. Remove the magnetic writing and reading head(s).
  4. The round disc contains your data and as such, must be destroyed. Exactly how you go about doing this is up to you, however, it's a good idea to wear safety gloves and goggles so that no jagged shards cause any injuries.

Conclusion

Emptying your Recycle Bin or formatting your hard drive aren't foolproof methods to make files and data permanently irretrievable. The good news is that with just a bit more effort and special software (most of which are free), you can safely, quickly, and properly wipe nearly any hard drive. Should digitally wiping your hard drive not be enough, there's always the option to make it physically unusable.

FAQs

Is it possible to completely wipe a hard drive?
Yes, however, neither emptying your Recycle Bin for individual files nor formatting your hard drive are thorough enough to guarantee permanent deletion of all data. For that reason, specialized software has been developed that is capable of doing so. If all else fails, there's still the option to physically destroy the hard drive in question.

How can I completely and irretrievably wipe all data from a hard drive?
This depends on what type of hard drive you have. HDDs can be wiped with relative ease using tools such as CCleaner or DBAN. For SSDs or SSHDs, you'll need to rely on firmware, ATA commands, or Parted Magic. Alternatively, you can remove the individual disks from your hard drive and physically destroy them.

How secure is CCleaner for wiping data?
So long as you select "Secure File Deletion" (under Settings), CCleaner securely removes files from your hard drive with an absolute minimum of fuss.

Can content on wiped hard drives be recovered?
Theoretically, even files ostensibly deleted with the help of software like CCleaner can be recovered. With that said, such recovery would require an inordinate amount of effort, and even then, yield poor results.

Author: Thomas Köhler
Thomas Köhler studied German and history and is currently pursuing a master's degree in public history at Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. As a freelance author, he writes mainly about data protection, IT security and software.
Other languages:
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