How to Format a Hard Drive or SSD Securely

Ray Walsh

Ray Walsh

November 19, 2017

Do you think you’ve successfully erased your personal data by formatting your hard drive, SSD, or USB stick? Sadly, this is a common misconception.

The reality is that unless you follow the steps in this guide, anybody with the right skills can restore deleted data from your old drives.

Many people assume that formatting a hard drive or SSD drive is enough. However, erased data is still recoverable. This can pose a risk if your old computer or hard drive ends up in someone else’s possession, as an expert or cybercriminal can recover vast amounts of data from it.

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Formatting and Restoring a Hard Drive or SSD

Formatting a hard drive is the process of deleting the information that it contains. Sadly, this is a bit misleading, because there’s software on the market designed specifically to allow people to recover data from formatted hard drives. This software can be used to recover both ‘permanently deleted’ files (SHIFT + DELETE on Windows) and fully formatted drives.

If your hard drives have been damaged or affected by a virus, file recovery software can be a blessing. However, cybercriminals also use this kind of software to recuperate old data from hard drives. This can give them a window into your life and allow them to cause all sorts of trouble.

Credit card theft, account theft, data theft, intellectual property theft: the list of possible crimes attainable by restoring old hard drives is disturbing. For this reason, it’s important that you take the time to properly remove old data from drives before throwing, selling, or giving them away.

Here is a full list of some of the problems that can occur if a drive is not properly formatted:

  • Identity theft
  • Employment-related fraud
  • Phone or utility fraud
  • Bank fraud
  • Government benefits fraud
  • Tax fraud
  • Loan fraud
  • Credit card fraud
  • Hacking

The Recovery Process

There are many different types of professional recovery software on the market. Once you – or a hacker – have got one of these programs, recovering files is easy.  Hard drive

To recover files, you put the hard drive into a working computer as a secondary drive. Once you’ve installed it, and the computer is showing it in explorer, you’re ready to recover data from it. Run the data recovery Wizard and select the location (hard drive) with permanently deleted files that need recovering. Now click Scan.

Recovery software usually has the option to Quick Scan or Deep Scan to find all lost files.

Once the software begins to find old files, you can preview and select them. If something is of interest, click Recover to save that data into a folder on the PC or to an external storage device. Once you restore the data to the hard drive, it is completely accessible.

How to Format a Hard Drive or SSD Securely

As you can see, the process of recovering old files is pretty straightforward. In fact, it’s so easy that not ensuring all data is properly deleted from old drives is pretty silly.

Thankfully, there are ways to properly format hard drives, USB sticks, and HDD and SSD drives so that the data is completely scrubbed. From now on, we highly recommend that you take these steps.

HDD Software Eraser

The cheapest and easiest way to wipe a drive completely is with a professional software eraser. Darik’s Boot And Nuke (DBAN) software is free and is a hassle-free way to delete a hard drive. To use it, simply connect the desired hard drive to a PC and run the software. However, please be aware that the software does take a very long time. In addition, it doesn’t work on defective disks.

To use the software, create a wipe CD or DVD. Now insert the drive you want to wipe into a PC, and run the software. Be very careful not to accidentally wipe a drive containing data that you require, because you will not be able to get it back afterward.

I recommend using a spare PC – or at least disconnecting all the hard drives that you do need – to be on the safe side. It is fine to do this because you will be booting up from the Boot And Nuke disc you made, not the internal drive. Please read the Boot and Nuke documentation thoroughly. If you make a mistake and delete the wrong disc, the data will be gone forever.

HDD Hardware Eraser

Another option is to use a hardware tool such as Drive eRazer Ultra from Wiebetech. The tool is a bit more costly, at $200. However, if you need to quickly delete data from a large number of hard drives (in an office, for example) this is an excellent option.

SSD

A Solid State Drive (SSD) can be securely formatted by using the manufacturer utilities. The best way to find these utilities is to search the website of your SSD manufacturer. Here are links to some of the most popular manufacturers:

Those utilities will walk you through the process, and they are pretty self-explanatory.

Another option is to encrypt the drive. VeraCrypt is perfect for Windows users who want to encrypt their SSD drive. Mac users can use the built-in FileVault utility. This is an excellent way to guarantee your data privacy because without the password nothing is accessible. However, if you intend to give away or sell the hard drive, you’ll need to use the manufacturer utilities to wipe it clean. Remember, the manufacturer utilities are the only way to properly wipe SSD drives, so please don’t use DBAN or some other utility.

For anyone who is having trouble finding a utility to delete their SSD drive, “shredding it” with a hammer and six-inch nails is recommended. This method can be used for regular HDD drives too. Simply hammer nails right through the drive in a number of places. It is best if you do this outside into a block of wood. Four evenly spaced nails right through the drive should be enough to destroy it. Sadly this will also destroy any resale value.

Apple Mac

Formatting a Mac Securely

The process for formatting a Mac securely is easy. No matter whether it is a hard drive in an older Mac or an external hard drive, you can use Disk Utility to securely format it. Simply follow these steps:

  • Open Disk Utility via your Applications > Utilities folder.
  • Choose the hard drive you want to securely format from the list of available drives in the left-hand column. Please ensure you choose the drive and not the partition.
  • Once you’ve selected the hard drive, click the Erase button.
  • A window will pop up asking you to give the drive a name for when it is erased, and how you want to format it. Please click the “Security Options” button at the bottom of the window.
  • This window allows you to select the level of formatting you desire. The default setting will still allow you to recover data from the drive at a later date. To ensure data is completely deleted, move the slider to the strongest delete option, Security Option 4 (Most Secure). This will take the longest time, but properly formatting a drive with software always takes time.

If you want to format your Mac hard drive even more securely, Intego’s Mac Washing Machine is an excellent option. It can overwrite files with 35 passes of random data before deleting them. This is an extremely secure method. However, to be fair, Option 4 of Disk Utility is approved by the US Department of Defense (whether you trust that entity, of course, is up to you!).

Conclusion

In this article, we have described everything you need to know about securely formatting hard drives. The process is easy, so you really have no reason not to protect yourself by following these procedures in future. It is well worth it!

Title image credit: Titipong Chumsung/Shutterstock.com

Image credits: Ksander/Shutterstock.com, hanss/Shutterstock.com, rvlsoft/Shutterstock.com

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