How to Get Personal Data off Your Devices


How to Get Personal Data off Your Devices

Don't recycle, trade in, sell, or donate your device without wiping it clean

Last updated: February 2015

With so many of our gadgets going online these days, credit-card and Social Security numbers, banking information, passwords, family photos, and more accumulate in places you might not expect.
You might be in the market for a new computer, tablet, or smart phone for yourself or a family member. Unless you're a hoarder, buying a new device means you'll likely be recycling, trading in, selling, or donating your old gadget. It’s essential to keep that sensitive data from getting into the wrong hands. The results could also be devastating: Just ask anyone who's been the victim of identity theft.

Erasing isn't enough

Taking the basic steps—deleting data from or reformatting a computer hard drive, or doing a factory reset on a smart phone or tablet—might be enough to discourage identity thieves. But this approach is far from a guarantee, and it won’t stop someone who’s specifically after your files, accounts, or photos.
And even if you find, identify, and delete all the sensitive files on your device, that doesn’t mean a savvy thief can’t recover them. Data-recovery software can be as easy to use as any basic software and app, and many programs are free.
To ensure that your files aren’t easily retrievable, you'll have to resort to more drastic measures. Most will take some time, but the effort is worthwhile and will provide greater peace of mind.

Getting started

First, back up the content you want to keep. Then check your device for any removable storage. For computers, that means checking the DVD drive, card reader, floppy drives, and USB ports for old or forgotten media.

In addition to internal storage, non-Apple phones and tablets often have a tiny removable microSD memory card, which houses photos and other media files and sometimes app data as well. The card is likely hiding beneath the back battery cover, near the SIM card slot, or even behind the battery. You’ll want to remove it, and—if your phone has one—also remove the SIM card, since it contains your phone number and probably at least some of your contacts.

For digital cameras and media players, removing the memory card is the obvious step. But many devices, particularly older digital cameras, have some internal storage as well. So connect the device to your computer via USB and delete or remove internal-memory files.

Personal computers

When you're recycling your old laptop or desktop, the simplest and most secure solution is to physically remove the hard drive. You can then install the old drive in your new computer, or put it in a USB hard drive enclosure and use it for backup or portable storage. But if screwdrivers intimidate you or you want the computer to remain functional so someone else can use it, you’ll have to invest a lot more time.
To make sure your personal data isn't recoverable by reasonable means, do a secure wipe: This not only deletes your data but also overwrites the data a certain number of times, which makes the data much more difficult to retrieve. Unless you're worried about corporate espionage or government intervention, three passes is generally sufficient. After that, some of your data may still be retrievable, but it would take a significant amount of time and expertise to do so.

You can securely erase a Mac or PC by making a free bootable DBAN CD or flash drive. When you boot your computer with DBAN, you can choose various levels of secure erasing and select which drives you want to erase, if the computer has more than one. Or you can type "autonuke" to securely erase all drives. (For PCs, you can also use secure file erasers such as File Shredder, Eraser, and Freeraser to erase individual files and folders instead of the whole drive.) You can also securely erase a Mac using its built-in Disk Utility. First boot to Recovery mode by holding down the Command and R keys while turning it on. Once booted, select Disk Utility from the menu, and then Continue. Select your hard drive, then select Security Options. From here, slide the slider to Most Secure. Follow the prompts asking if you really want to erase the drive, and sit back while it runs.

Note that DBAN works only on standard hard drives. If you have an SSD you’ll have to try another program. SSD’s are more complicated to erase than standard hard drives. Check with the SSD manufacturer to see if they offer a free utility you can use. If not, then try Parted Magic. As with DBAN, you’ll need to make a bootable CD or flash drive, then boot to it and follow the instructions. Parted Magic can be downloaded with options starting at $9.

DBAN and Parted Magic are good choices as long as you don't want to repurpose the PC with the OS intact. If you're on Windows 8, though, you can do a factory reset with Windows reinstalled, with an option to do a secure erase in the process.
Securely erasing  a standard hard drive can take several hours or even days to complete, depending on the size of your drives, so don't do this the night before donating or selling your device. Because SSDs are faster than hard drives and they store file data differently, a secure erase takes only seconds to minutes to complete.
You can also this method to erase external portable hard drives securely. Just take care to erase the correct drive and not a drive with data or an operating system that you want to keep.

Smart phones and tablets

The easiest way to securely erase a smart phone or tablet is to encrypt the device first, then do a factory reset. First, though, remember to back up any files you want to keep and remove the microSD and SIM cards.

Apple iOS

Apple generally does a better job of securely erasing your personal data than Android. For the iPhone 3GS or later, third-generation iPod Touch or later, and all iPads, device data should automatically be encrypted if you have a passcode (screen lock) enabled. The passcode is used to generate an encryption key, and when you factory-reset your phone, the passcode and encryption key are securely deleted. Any data that’s left behind is securely scrambled, and thereby inaccessible to all but the highest-level data-recovery experts.

If you haven’t already set a passcode in iOS, you can do so by tapping Settings, then Passcode or Touch ID and Passcode (depending on your device).

Once encryption is enabled, head back into Settings, then General, then Reset. You’ll see a warning that the next step will erase all your media and data, followed by a red Erase button. Hit this and after a few minutes, your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch is ready to sell or trade.


Many Android phones and tablets, particularly older devices, don’t support hardware-based encryption. But you can enable encryption via software. Just know that encryption may slow your device’s performance, and it can’t be disabled without resetting your phone.

Plug in your Android device before encrypting, as the process can take more than an hour, depending on hardware and the amount of storage on your device.

You’ll also need to set up a PIN or password (not pattern unlock or face recognition) if you don’t have one already, as the device uses your password to generate the encryption keys. Go to Settings, then tap Security, then Screen Lock or Encrypt Device. Then create a PIN or password.

Now you’ll be able to encrypt your Android device. Go to Settings again, then Security, then Encrypt phone (or tablet). A warning screen will advise you that the process will take time and can’t be undone without resetting your phone or tablet. You’ll also have to provide your PIN or password before proceeding.

After your device has finished encrypting its data and rebooted, you’ll have to again enter your PIN or password to get back into Android. Once there, you’re ready to factory-reset the device.
Because different device makers tweak Android to their own liking, the instructions for this next step (and Android instruction in general) will vary from device to device.


The BlackBerry OS has changed so much over the years that providing detailed steps to encrypt and reset every device is impossible. But the basic steps are quite similar to those of iOS and Android, and should roughly line up with the instructions below.

Go to Options, Security Options, General Settings, and set a password.

Then set Content Protection to Enabled. Choose the option to encrypt your address book as well.

Once that’s done, make sure your phone or tablet is plugged in, then follow these detailed instructions from BlackBerry to reset. Or just dive into Settings, tap Security, then tap Security Wipe.

Enter your password, confirm that you want to reset the device, tap the Wipe Data button, and wait for the process to finish.

Windows Phone

Most older Windows Phone 7 devices lack on-device encryption. Windows Phone 8 devices do support encryption, but the average consumer can’t switch it on: Encryption must be enabled via one of two paid business-class services. That means device encryption isn’t an option for the average Windows Phone consumer, so you’ll have to go to a bit more trouble to securely erase your data.

To reset your Windows Phone, go to Settings, then About, then Reset phone. In Windows Phone 8, you’ll have to tap through two warning screens before deleting all your data.

Since you weren’t able to encrypt your old data before deleting it, you can then force the device to overwrite your old data by manually filling up the phone’s internal storage with nonpersonal files. Any small files that don’t contain personal data will work. MP3 files are a good choice, because most people have enough of them to fill up a phone.

Unfortunately, for older Windows Phones, you can’t just connect the phone to a PC and drag files over. For Windows Phone 7 devices, you’ll need to transfer the files via Zune software.

For Windows Phone 8, on a PC, you can drag files onto the device using Windows Explorer. For Macs, you can use the Windows Phone app

However you get the music or other nonpersonal data onto the device, you’ll need to keep adding files until the phone is completely full. For added security, when the phone is full of music files, you can delete the files you added, then fill the device up again, and factory reset the phone a second time.

Gaming consoles

There’s no easy way to do a secure wipe of game-console storage, so you’ll have to rely on the standard factory reset. For most consoles, you can physically remove the hard drive and hook it up to a PC or Mac, and securely erase it via the method mentioned above. But generally, the sensitive data on consoles is stored in nonremovable Flash memory.

As we noted earlier, you’ll want to remove any media cards and either keep them, or securely erase those as well before placing them back in the system. You can securely erase standard SD cards with this free app from the SD Association.

After installing and starting the SD formatting program, choose the card’s drive letter on your system, then click the Format button on the bottom.

Then from the resulting menu, choose Format Type: Full (OverWrite). Again, this will take quite a bit of time, depending on the SD card’s capacity and write speed.

Bottom line

Remember, even if you follow our advice to securely delete files from electronic devices, the only foolproof way to make sure no one can retrieve your data is to physically destroy hard drives and memory chips (following proper safety precautions). Of course, if you smash your device, you won’t be able to sell it, trade it in, donate it, or give it to a friend.

If your devices ever contained top-secret documents, you may want to look for a hammer. For the rest of us, the methods above should be reasonably sufficient to keep your personal data safe.

—Matt Safford

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