5 Tools To Permanently Delete Sensitive Data From Your Hard Drive [Windows]

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delete sensitive dataIn a recent article I explained why it is impossible to recover data from a hard drive after overwriting it. In that post I mentioned that simply deleting files or formatting your hard drive typically does not remove or overwrite files at all, meaning they can still be recovered.

If this information made you a little nervous, let me connect the pieces for you and show you how you can terminally and permanently delete files, not only from your hard drive, but also from other re-writable storage devices.

Low Level Formatting

The kind of formatting most of us do is known as high level formatting, and whether you perform a quick format or not, your data won’t be deleted. What high level formatting does is set up the file system from scratch and in the process the information where files were stored is removed.

Low level formatting on the other hand re-initializes the disk and resets the values of each and every magnetic domain, which represents one bit, to zero. We have thoroughly covered formatting on MakeUseOf and if you would like to look into the details, I recommend the following articles:

Darik’s Boot And Nuke

delete sensitive data

Low level formatting isn’t 100% efficient and may leave traces of data. If you wish to wipe an entire disk before you dispose of it, I recommend Darik’s Boot and Nuke, a boot disk that will automatically and completely delete data on any detected hard disk.

A walkthrough of Darik’s Boot and Nuke can be found in this article:

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CCleaner

If you are already using CCleaner, you should know that it contains a Drive Wiper.

Open CCleaner and go to > Tools > Drive Wiper. You can wipe only free space or the entire drive, and you can choose up to 35 passes, meaning data will be overwritten with random strings of binary code 35 times. This very complex overwrite should make it impossible for anyone to restore the data originally saved in this space. When you’re happy with your settings click > Wipe and wait patiently.

delete sensitive files

SDelete

Microsoft made it very easy to not delete files thoroughly. To make up for this potential security hole, they released a free command line utility called SDelete. This doesn’t make removing data any more convenient, but it can be considered a step in the right direction. Unfortunately it is a very small step, since Microsoft fails to provide instructions on how to properly open SDelete in the first place. Well, that’s what MakeUseOf is here for.

  1. Download the ZIP archive containing the tool and extract the folder.
  2. Click > [WINDOWS] + [R] to open the Run window.
  3. Type > cmd and click > OK to open the command prompt.
  4. Then move the > SDelete.exe file to the directory > C:\User\yourusername
  5. Now type a command in the command prompt, for example > sdelete -z to cleanse free space on your C: partition. A full list of commands is shown in the screenshot below.

delete sensitive files

Eraser

Eraser is a freeware and open source security tool to completely remove data from your hard drive. It can overwrite data several times using randomized patterns of binary code. It essentially is a file shredder.

Eraser is more convenient than CCleaner’s Drive Wiper because it can delete and shred single files, rather than just wiping all free space on a drive, and it is integrated with Windows Explorer (right-click menu). Moreover, Eraser provides you with a host of advanced settings, for example different file and space erasure methods, the option to replace erased files with other files to allow plausible ‘deniability’, and schedule erasure of files, folders, recycle bin, or unused disk space.

delete sensitive data

The tool is also available as a portable app called EraserDrop Portable. It is part of the PortableApps suite.

We have covered Eraser in its (and MakeUseOf’s) very beginnings four years ago. Both have come a long way since. Feel free to check out the article here – How To securely Retrieve and Delete PC Files

Other Tools

There are several more file shredders that can securely delete files from your hard drive. Some of them were covered in the article 4 File Shredders to Make Deleted Data Unrecoverable. If you need to secure sensitive data without deleting it, you should seriously look into encryption and the article Encrypt Or Completely Wipe Files With the Axcrypt Encryption Utility [Windows] provides an excellent start.

Do you have nightmares of what someone might find on an old hard drive you discarded?

Image credits: R. MACKAY PHOTOGRAPHY, LLC

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Comments (10)
  • Lone Oak

    Confusion is the order of the day in the preceding proceedings above, because their is (to my estimation) no clear delineation which would clearly differentiate between simple delete
    (which in my opinion only means HIDE) as compared to other modality.
    When Monica Lewinsky ‘deleted’ Bill Clinton’s emails
    twice (as is usually the case for most situations)
    she apparently thought that said emails were irretrievably
    gone. Computer “experts” easily recovered those supposedly
    ‘deleted’ emails.Actually even a novice can recover similarly
    ‘deleted’ files by downloading ,installing and using
    available online recovery freeware.

    The use of the term “low-level format” should be rejected
    as it no longer reflects modern hard drive reality.
    If one is dreaming off “low level formatting” the S.M.A.R.T
    ability of a hard drive, he’d better give up dream that
    dream.
    Over-writing existing data over an entire drive
    with random 1s and 0s should be called a mid-level format
    as the fundamental sector of that drive dedicated to
    the specific manufacturer’s data or instructions
    is made inaccessible to users by design.

    By the way,one can just use 0s everywhere
    (instead of 1s and 0s) to overwrite data you never want to see again;such a case is appropriately called to
    “ZERO_OUT the drive”.

    A simple freeware such as Killdisc 8.0 will “zero_out” your drive. I use the DOS version,but a Windows suite version is also available (among others).
    One must however realize that a “zero”ed_out drive
    will not be usable until one FORMATs the drive with a chosen file
    system and also newly INSTALLs a chosen operating system.

    Apparently the DOD of our USA “supposedly”
    requires 7 over_writes (as per its own algorithm)
    so as not to miss any sensitive data that could (at least in theory) be retrievable.

    I have encountered many hard drives, supposedly defective,
    supposedly harboring bad sectors, but which subsequently
    functioned well after being ZEROed_out,FORMATTED,
    and newly loaded with an OS.
    One negative in the picture is “how long it takes”
    to zero_out a drive when one is dealing with Terrabytes hard drives.

    If one is concerned that his wife will accidentally discover
    that he had actually been visiting porn sites while allegedly
    “doing computer work”, he should indeed wipe out
    all traces of his indiscretions.
    I will let someone else discuss whether or not using
    wipe_out (or other “secure” mean of erasure)
    actually affects the total USABLE space on the hard drive.

    Lone Oak

  • Freek

    Hi Tina,
    Nice article. I am curious tough on why CC cleaner gices the possibility to overwrite data up to 35 times in order to make it impossible for any expert to reconstruct the initial data, while on the other hand you state in your instroductiona nd other article that it is impossible to retrieve overwritten data.

    TX

    • Tina

      Well, it is impossible for the average user to retrieve data that was overwritten. With advanced technology, however, it is possible to reconstruct data.

      I don’t know how exactly this works, but I imagine that every re-write leaves its trace (magnetic on a hard drive) and with adequate scanning techniques, those traces can be filtered until readable data have been extracted.

  • veer

    I have delete a personal text file and also empty recyclebin after than i have delete other text file exist same name and once again empty recyclebin for overwrite first personal file now is the possible recover the first personal text file from hard disk????

  • Hank hart

    Have tried most removal programs,but even after trying all possibilities the pc starts with Windows setup every time,should I remove harddrive or??thanks for reply

    • Tina

      Hank, I’m afraid I don’t understand your question. What are you trying to remove? What has that got to do with Windows setup? Are you trying to remove / uninstall Windows?

  • Ammar

    I read somewhere that these tools can delete your data from conventional hard drives but not from SSD’s. Can anyone shed light on this issue?

    • Tina

      Ammar,

      to be honest I’m not sure.

      SSDs store data differently than conventional hard drives. Modern SSDs are NAND flash-based. However, on the software side the process of writing random bits of data over existing data should be the same. Moreover, data is also managed by a file system, so there are no differences in how data is stored on an organizational level. Just the physical method of storing data is different.

      This might actually be worth asking a question at MakeUseOf Answers.

    • Jim Martens

      Hello Ammar,

      Currently, common products such as DBAN and CCleaner do not erase SSDs and will in fact give false positives saying the erasure has been complete. There are only a few data erasure software solutions out there currently that have been certified to erase SSDs. My understanding is that most companies claim to erase SSDs, however, they are simply triggering the SecureErase function that comes with the SSD which has shown in lab testing to not 100% erase the data. It’s important to make sure the solution you pick actually removes the freezelocks inherent with SSDs to ensure the erasure has been complete.

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Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.