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Kill your data dead with these tips and tools

Jon L. Jacobi | Jan. 15, 2014
There are lots of ways to obliterate sensitive data from of your drive: blast furnaces, degaussers (magnet field generators), sledgehammers, and secure-deletion software among them. These tools vary in effectiveness--especially as applied variously to hard drives, solid-state drives, and USB flash drives--and in the subsequent usability of the drive.

Little, command-line-lovely HDDerase.exe isn't for inexperienced users — it's a bit too geeky and can require multiple steps. Another drawback of the app is that it can't bypass the frozen security stat that most modern drives employ to avoid malware erasures. But otherwise it invokes the secure-erase function just fine. It also comes in .ISO form, so you can burn it to disc or create a bootable flash drive from it.

Note that the NSA sponsored HDDerase. Yes, the folks there like to secure as well as monitor data. Not to mention dip their hands into open-source security projects. Interpret that historical nugget as you will.

Most drive vendors provide a utility that can run S.M.A.R.T. diagnostics to check drive health, update firmware, and invoke a drive's secure-erase routine. Odds are you'll have to sign an agreement accepting that the tool may brick your drive — but hey, that's life in the big city. A short list of such utilities includes Data Lifeguard (from Western Digital), Drive Fitness Test (from Hitachi), OCZ ToolboxSamsung Magician (SSD only), and SeaTools (from Seagate).

For hard drives only: Block-overwrite software
Block-overwrite software is more versatile than the secure-erase command because it lets you wipe data from a hard drive while leaving the operating system, program files, and other keepers intact. Unfortunately, this type of software is ineffective on SSDs or USB flash drives, and in many cases it can't wipe a hard drive's HPA (Host Protected Area), which contains data about the low-level organization of the drive. That said, with high-powered algorithms and multiple passes, it will effectively render your data unreadable even when subjected to all but the most expensive forensic techniques.

O&O SafeErase 7 ($30, free demo) is a jack-of-all-trades that can remove individual files and folders or erase entire partitions and disks. Like the previously reviewed PrivaZer, SafeErase scans your hard drive for possibly sensitive files, presents them to you for inspection (or you can elect to accept its assessment across the board), deletes them, and then wipes them. SafeErase did a good job of finding sensitive stuff while ignoring what I wanted to save, and it includes options on general types of files to look for.

SafeErase can also wipe free space (erasing the tracks left by deleted files) and your entire computer (all drives, everything), though those options aren't available in the demo version. But the $30 that O&O charges for those extra features may money well spent if you want to maintain a clean system. SafeErase is a nicely realized, versatile data-destruction program.

MediaTools Wipe 1.2 ($99, free demo) is all about erasing a lot of hard disks with minimal fuss. It's designed for professionals who erase in bulk and will dedicate a (rather powerful) PC to the task. MediaTools Wipe 1.2 can handle up to 18 drives at once, all presented in a convenient console view. The program has its own wipe routines, but it can't invoke a drive's own secure-erase routines.

 

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