Beware These 8 Security Issues When Recycling Hardware

Philip Bates 30-03-2016

Most of us have old devices knocking around our homes. This could be an old PC that’s out of warranty, an iPad that’s been replaced by one with a bigger memory, or an Xbox 360 that’s been usurped by the Xbox One.


It still works, but you’ve no need for it anymore. You can’t dump it in a landfill: there are too many components potentially hazardous to the environment. Instead, you might’ve considered donating it to a school, church, or charity — however, bearing in mind the amount of personal data that it’s stored, is it the safe thing to do?

Here are just a few security concerns you need to consider before getting rid of your hardware, and what you can actually do about them.

Personal Information

Your private data can be stored on anything with a permanent memory, so that includes your PC, laptop, smartphone, iDevices, and games console.

Data might just be obvious stuff like your name, address, and date of birth. It may seem absolutely harmless. But it’s not.


Aside from considering how much your personal information is worth Here's How Much Your Identity Could Be Worth on the Dark Web It's uncomfortable to think of yourself as a commodity, but all of your personal details, from name and address to bank account details, are worth something to online criminals. How much are you worth? Read More on the hidden Deep Web 10 Little-Known Corners of the Deep Web You Might Actually Like The dark web has a bad reputation, but there are some really useful dark web sites you might want to check out. Read More and more specifically, the Dark Web, think how someone could use such data to learn more about yourself and what gateways that might open. Could that information include clues to your passwords? How about answers to various security questions How To Create A Security Question That No One Else Can Guess In recent weeks I have written a lot about how to make online accounts recoverable. A typical security option is setting up a security question. While this potentially provides a quick and easy way to... Read More ?

Financial Data

With Personally Identifiable Information (PII), a thief could potentially get a credit card in your name. If that’s not worrying enough, imagine them also getting hold of your financial records.

Thanks to cookies What Is a Website Cookie? How Cookies Affect Your Online Privacy You've heard of internet cookies, but what exactly are they? What do they have to do with your privacy? Here's what you need to know. Read More , much of your information is stored away, and some of us might’ve also opted for browsers to save passwords on certain devices. This is bad news — particularly when it comes to online banking Is Online Banking Safe? Mostly, But Here Are 5 Risks You Should Know About There's a lot to like about online banking. It's convenient, can simplify your life, you might even get better savings rates. But is online banking as safe and secure as it should be? Read More and PayPal. If even the slightest trace of monetary data still exists on your device, a scammer will do their damndest to find it.

Medical Records

Medical Advice


Okay, so the core worry is data remanence. Even if you throw a file in trash, data still exists in the Hard Disk Drive (HDD), awaiting retrieval by yourself (in case you realize you actually did need it) or possibly someone with sinister intent.

When those files include medical information, that’s definitely a cause for concern Medical ID Theft: How Scammers Use Records To Steal Your Identity Read More .

Indeed, medical identity theft is on the increase 5 Reasons Why Medical Identity Theft is Increasing Scammers want your personal details and bank account information – but did you know that your medical records are also of interest to them? Find out what you can do about it. Read More because such details can typically be obtained en masse and be sold on for relatively high amounts.

Old Photos

There’s a growing trend, perhaps perpetuated by celebrity culture Apple Investigates Celebrity Nudes, YouTube Introduces Tip Jar, And More... [Tech News Digest] Also, looking forward to the Internet Slowdown, Windows XP edges 1% closer to death, play Star Citizen for free, the new Raspberry Pi Web browser, and the wearables we narrowly avoided. Read More and helped along by Snapchat The Snappening: Hundreds of Thousands of Snapchats May Have Been Leaked Read More and the like, to take compromising photos. These are deeply intimate in nature and certainly something you wouldn’t want a stranger possessing.


A couple of years ago, the issue hit headlines when the so-called “Celebgate” How A "Minor" Data Breach Made Headline News & Ruined Reputations Read More exposed a vulnerability. But it’s not just those in fame’s fickle spotlight whose pictures can give someone else leverage. You’re a target too. The practise is called sextortion Sextortion Has Evolved And It's Scarier Than Ever Sextortion is an abhorrent, prevalent blackmailing technique targeting young and old, and is now even more intimidating thanks to social networks like Facebook. What can you do to protect yourself from these seedy cybercriminals? Read More , and can feel all-encompassing.

And even if you don’t have such adult material on your PC or smartphone, surely someone you don’t know casually flicking through your ordinary photos is creepy anyway?

Social Networking Accounts


Again, this might seem somewhat insignificant, but we reveal a worrying amount of details about ourselves on the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Doing a privacy check-up Protect Yourself With Facebook's Privacy Check-up Tool Facebook has a privacy problem. It's no secret. You hear stories about that every other day. So to help users understand their settings better, Facebook has released a new tool called Privacy Check-up. Read More won’t make a difference if your login data is still on an old drive, waiting for someone to remotely sign into Facebook and manipulate you.


Any devices owned by youngsters are particularly troubling. Ken Munro, from security firm Pen Test Partners, warned The Guardian:

“Our most significant concern is that predators could buy cheap, used tablets from online auction sites and other sources. Using simple tools, they could recover children’s data and passwords. This could allow the predator to access their social networks directly, making for terrifying cyber-stalking from inside their social network account. They would have access to your child’s account.”


Smartphones store your SMS on encrypted messengers, but that encryption only protects them between devices. Older cell phones store such data on the SIM. It’s always good practise to remove the SIM card anyway; after all, why would anyone you’re sending the hardware to need it?

Messages are private by their very nature, but they may also contain intimate photos or account details. How many of us systematically delete messages from, say, service providers…?


In some cases, PC World found recycled phones that still contained voicemail, texts, and emails. Add all that together and you’ve got quite an accurate picture of a life.

Contact Details

Just in case something goes wrong, your address book is generally saved onto both the cell phone’s internal memory and the SIM card. It’s a failsafe so that if you lose your SIM card, for instance, you still have the contact details of your family and friends. They’re further saved on SD cards.

Most remove the SIM card when recycling their phones, but that just stops it communicating across the network. But numbers generally remain on the cell, and it’s something your loved ones will probably be peeved about, should they receive questionable calls.

If in doubt, take the cards out then switch the phone back on and see what data you still have access to. You may be surprised.

Gaming Accounts

Consoles are capable of so much these days, so the latest Xbox and Playstation come with 500GB HDDs, intended for storing enough downloadable content (DLC), save game data, and profile information for some gamers. That’s a lot of private material, especially if we then factor in SD cards and cloud services like Xbox Live.

Recycling consoles is a popular decision because it typically gets you a step closer to owning a newer system, and while some professional services offer to wipe such data, you don’t want something important to be missed — like account or financial data.

Here’s What You Can Do

These potential security breaches shouldn’t stop you from recycling your old hardware. There’s always something that can be done.

Your first step is a degree of research. Get to know what you can recycle Disposing Of An Old Laptop - What To Recycle, What To Keep Laptops are a treasure trove of parts that can live more than one life. Whether they continue a life as spare part or become the subject of a DIY tech project, you can get a... Read More , where you can pass it onto, and brush up on the environmental issues. Then go through our handy checklist before disposing 5 Things You Must Check Before Disposing of Old Computers Read More of your PC.

The “Scorched Earth” option is to destroy your hard drive. Literally smashing it up. Oh sure, we’ve all dreamed about it during times of slow connections and systems updates. Here’s your chance. After all, whoever you’re passing your device onto can buy a new HDD Buying a New Hard Drive: 7 Things You Must Know Buying a hard drive is easy if you know some basic tips. Here's a guide to understanding the most important hard drive features. Read More . The same goes for some consoles like the PlayStation 3. There’s no way back from this. It’s one of two ways we recommend for totally destroying information on the HDD How to Completely Wipe a Hard Drive There are two ways to wire a hard drive. Here's what you need to know to get it done quick and easy. Read More .

If that’s too extreme for you, fair enough. You can enlist a professional or overwrite data yourself. Permanent Eraser for Mac goes over the original information 35 times and scrambles file names. It’s a pretty solid solution. You can also securely erase files from your HDD How to Securely Delete Files From Your HDD or SSD in Windows Did you know files never actually get deleted? That's why they can be recovered; by you or someone else. If this makes you feel uncomfortable, learn how to securely delete files. Read More on Windows or use Eraser, which will work on Linux too.

Apple devices are typically very efficient when it comes to erasing all the data saved. You’ll likely want a back-up version saved on iTunes for writing onto a new phone, and then go Settings > General > Reset > Erase All Content and Settings > Erase iPhone.

It’ll leave your iDevice a blank slate. (It’s also worth deauthorizing the Digital Rights Management — DRM — in the iTunes store before recycling a computer. Purchase authorization also applies to some games using SecuROM, which will limit the number of devices you can register with, and eBook readers – though you’re generally not restricted on these.)

Android’s factory resets generally aren’t quite so absolute, so encryption is a further safeguard Can Android Data Be Recovered After a Factory Reset? Can data be retrieved after factory reset on your phone? Here's how to perform a factory reset on Android, plus common answers. Read More on your data. In fact, it’s worthwhile no matter what smartphone you have How To Encrypt Data on Your Smartphone With the Prism-Verizon scandal, what allegedly has been happening is that the United States of America's National Security Agency (NSA) has been data mining. That is, they have been going through the call records of... Read More .

As an added safety measure, you could always retroactively change your passwords on any important accounts: PayPal, online banking, iTunes, email, and social networks including Google Play. But don’t do that on the device you’re getting rid of.

Check you’re not logged into Facebook on your old PC (or any other unrecognized or redundant devices, for that matter) by opening Settings > Security > Where You’re Logged In and click End Activity for anything other than what you’re currently using.

Deleting information from game consoles naturally differs between manufacturers. It’s worth checking specific sites for exact instructions for each, and take note exactly what is erased. For the Wii, for instance, you need to access System Settings then select Format Wii System Memory. Click Format three times. This deletes all save data and downloads.

Don’t forget to remove any external storage devices, including USB and SD card.

One More Thing…

Cloud services are all the rage, and rightly so: they give you peace of mind, backing up all your private data securely.

But this is important: disable any cloud sync before deleting documents and photos. Those files should remain digitally-saved on Dropbox or whatever system you choose. That includes disconnecting clouds and memberships accompanying games consoles, like Nintendo’s shopping channels.

What other tips have you got for ensuring all your private information is deleted? What further concerns do you have? And how do you recycle old hardware?

Image Credits: Electronic waste by Africa Studio via Shutterstock, Medical Advice by CJ SorgCollage of Digital (Social) Networks by Tanja Cappell; and Phones by Michael Perackas.

Related topics: Computer Privacy, Computer Security, Smartphone Security.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

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  1. Anonymous
    April 1, 2016 at 10:29 pm


    Heck no!. A quick Format will NOT reliably wipe all data from a disk.
    Download a free program such as CCleaner (> Tools > Drive Wiper option), HDDErase, or Eraser (all Windows programs — I'm sure other platforms have equivalents).

    A single pass is enough on modern drives.

    • Anonymous
      April 2, 2016 at 4:29 am

      Did You Forget To Read My Most Important Step - ( D ) ?


      New To MUO ?

      If You Do Not Reply Directly To A Prior Post, Said Poster Will Not Receive An Email Notification Of Your Reply.

      I Just Happened To Come Here, That Is Why I Found Out That You Had Replied To Me.


  2. Anonymous
    April 1, 2016 at 1:55 am

    ( From Another Thread )

    Jeez, Why The Need For Violence And The Destruction Of Good Hardware ?

    No Need To Be Such A Landfill Sender.

    A - Delete All Partitions On The Drive,

    B - Create A New Partition That Occupies The Whole Drive,

    C - Format ( B ) With The Quick Option,

    D - Copy Really Big Unimportant Files To ( B ) Until There Is 0 Bytes Space Left Free.


    If You Still Do Not Want The Drive, Give It To Me, I Collect All Kinds Of Small PC Parts.

    I Have Dozens Of Drives Both Old And New - My Smallest Drive ( 40MB ) Came With My Very First PC - A 286 PHILIPS Model P3238 From DECEMBER 1991.



  3. dragon
    April 1, 2016 at 1:33 am

    I drill 1-3 holes through the hard drive then take the computer to an eRecyle station.

  4. Col_Panek
    April 1, 2016 at 12:14 am

    Best thing to do with a working PC is put Linux on it (wiping the HDD) and sell/donate/reuse it.

    Good hard drive: use as an auxiliary drive, or use eraser utility and recycle.

    Bad hard drive: get a set of tools to open it up (Harbor Freight) and take out the magnets. Smash the crap out of the rest.

  5. Anonymous
    March 31, 2016 at 11:16 pm

    Encrypt, encrypt, encrypt!

    Anything of a private or legal or financial nature should be encrypted on your device, whether you're getting rid of it or not. Even a relatively insecure password, something like your old car license plate number written backwards, will deter casual snoops.
    Most of the archive programs such as 7Zip have encryption as an option, just open the full console.

  6. Anonymous
    March 30, 2016 at 11:50 pm

    I used to make a living from refurbishing and selling PC people threw out. Out of the hundreds of PCs that I picked up only ONE had its hard drive destroyed. With all the rest, nobody made any effort to wipe the hard drive. They just put it outon the curb. I collected at least 100 GB of music. Had I a larcenous bent, I could have cleaned the bank accounts of many people. I could have also blackmailed many people with the X-rated images they left on their hard drives.

    • Pat
      March 31, 2016 at 11:36 pm

      Before I gave away my last computer, I gave the wiped hard drives to someone to disassemble. He kept the super strong magnets (rare earth?) and the hard drive discs (nice mirrors!) for future projects.