When you delete a file on your PC, or on a Mac, by sending it to the “Trash,” it’s easy to assume that the file is gone forever. But really, it’s just been sent to another place.
Just like a physical trash can, the contents of your PC’s Recycle Bin or Mac’s Trash Can are only cleared out when you empty them. Using the same analogy, if it’s been a while since you’ve emptied them, there’s a treasure trove of documents and items for someone to snoop through.
And, if you haven’t properly shredded private documents, they can still be found later on down the road. All those deleted letters, financial documents and compromising photos are still lurking on the computer. All it takes is a little know-how to recover them.
What’s going on? When a file is deleted, your operating system removes the link to the file and marks the space free. Until it’s overwritten by new information, that file will still exist on your hard drive.
If you consider the size of hard drives, it could be some time until that file is really gone for good. That gives a hacker ample opportunity to get his hands on your sensitive data.
And just think about that old computer you’re going to sell on eBay. You could be turning over your entire digital life to a stranger. Who wants that?
Erasing your data forever
If you want to get serious about your personal security, you need to erase sensitive data for good.
Eraser, in particular, has a lot of options for deleting data. It has a simple, clean interface, and can permanently erase data from any drive that works with Windows. You can even schedule deletions to happen automatically.
Blank and Secure is a portable deletion tool that you can store on a USB stick. It “shreds” files by overwriting the data with zeros before deleting, making recovery impossible.
When MacOS Sierra was released, Apple removed the secure delete option for both the Trash Can and the Terminal. To shred files you’d like to remove from Macs, you’ll need to use a shredding app like Secure Delete – File Shredder. However, it does cost $4.99 to download.
In case you didn’t know, popular cross-platform tool CCleaner for PCs and Macs not only does automatic clean-up of your browser cookies, trackers, internet history, download history, cache and even individual session activity; it also has an option for Secure Deletion of files.
Hard drive encryption
An extra layer of security you can employ is disk encryption. With encryption, your data will be converted into unreadable code that can only be deciphered with a specific key or password.
PC users can enable Windows’ built-in encryption tool BitLocker. BitLocker is available to anyone with a machine running Windows Vista or 7 Ultimate, Windows Vista or 7 Enterprise, Windows 8.1 Pro, Windows 8.1 Enterprise, or Windows 10 Pro.
Users of Home versions of Windows 7, 8.1 and 10 can use the free and open-source encryption tool VeraCrypt.
Macs have their own built-in disk-encrypting tool, too, called FileVault. Similar to BitLocker, it helps prevent unauthorized access to your data and adds an extra layer of security in case your computer is stolen or lost.
Note: To set up FileVault, click the Apple menu and select System Preferences. Then click the Security icon. Open the FileVault tab. Now click Turn On FileVault.
Solid-State Drive (SSD) manufacturers also include management, encryption and secure deletion tools with their disks, so make sure you check these available options too.