Would You Give All Your Files to a Random Stranger?

Folks, we need to have a serious discussion about wiping your sensitive bits. No, not those bits! I’m talking about your sensitive information.

Think about all the information on your hard drive right now. Or on your phone. Or USB key. Now, imagine I asked you to print out all of those files and hand them to the first person you crossed in the street wearing, say, a blue shirt.

I imagine many, if not most of you, just recoiled in horror. We all have at least one digital storage device, and they contain a lot of information about us. Information you wouldn’t want to hand to a stranger. Yet you might have already done so at least once.

What am I talking about? Let me explain. Or rather, demonstrate.


Earlier this week, I spotted an external hard drive in a pawn shop: €24.99, 500GB, clearly Western Digital from the form factor (although it was mislabeled as a Seagate drive). Overall, a decent deal. And when I saw it, the idea for this post popped in my head. There and then, I decided to do it, and bought the drive for this experiment.

The test subject: Western Digital 500GB External Hard Drive, Second Hand
The test subject: Western Digital 500GB External Hard Drive, Second Hand

I hurried home and plugged it in. But not to use it. No. I started up a file recovery program.

It’s important to note that this drive is a completely standard drive, and that all the files HAD BEEN DELETED. And this is a tiny bit of what I found when I ran the program:

This is just a tiny selection of the files I quickly found
This is just a tiny selection of the files I quickly found

The first scan returned 37,143 files. Encouraged, I ran a fuller, more in-depth scan. In total, I found 40,295 files (60GB), dating over 20 years. Files the previous owner believed deleted.  Do you see the problem yet? This software is not complex to run, it is free, and instructions abound on the internet. Any bored teenager could easily do exactly what I have done. Keep that in mind.

Allow me to introduce you to this drive’s previous owner:

Mr. Picard and his wife on vacation in Tuscany
Mr. Picard and his wife on vacation in Turkey

This is Mr. Picard – that’s not his real name, but I do have his full, real name. This is one of many private photos I recovered of his vacation with his family to Turkey.

Mr. Picard owns a small heating and electrician business nearby, which he has operated from the same address for at least 20 years. I know this because I recovered over 17,000 of his business documents, dating back to 1996: bills, estimates, salary info, hiring info (including employee social security numbers, full names, dates of birth…), blueprints, product catalogs — I even found a lot of financial records, including bank balances.

A bill, randomly chosen among MANY


Company’s financial records

If you didn’t see the problem before, you’re seeing it now, aren’t you? Aside from all those documents, I also recovered multiple databases, which I’m too lazy to try to open, vacation photos, and many full films. Mr. Picard, it seems, was an avid film downloader – though I can only assume that he downloaded most of these for his grandchildren.

Do you want to hack a hard driiiiiiiiive?
Do you want to hack a hard driiiiiiiiive?

A lot of these are films I either haven’t seen yet and want to see, or films I’d love to see again. So I’m keeping the films.

The worst part though is that I recovered not only financial documents, not only scanned ID cards, but passports! One belongs to him, and another two to a married couple he knows somehow.



Luckily for Mr. Picard, I only look like a criminal, and I have no interest in ruining his life. All of his files (except those films) will be completely erased when this experiment is over.


A hard drive’s actually a bunch of small storage locations where the drive can write files. Picture a closet full of shoe boxes. You have something to store, so you throw it in an empty box, and write the box number and contents down on a big list (the file table).

That’s what your hard drive does: it writes the file’s data to a storage spot, then makes a note in the table that storage location x contains file y. Sometimes the object you want to store is too big for a box – so you chop it up into box-sized chunks, put it in whichever empty boxes you can find, and write down the locations, order, and contents of those boxes. Your hard drive does this as well, and it’s called fragmentation.

When you delete a file to the recycle bin, you haven’t even removed its name from the big file list. The computer just changes where you see it (in the recycle bin).

When you empty the recycle bin (or shift+delete something), the name is removed from the big list, and the space is marked as empty: the computer can now dump out that shoe box and put something else in. But it won’t bother with that until it has something else to put in.

So although it’s marked as empty, the data’s still there. And it will stay there until the computer writes something over it. And since the computer has soooo many shoe boxes to choose from, who knows when it will get around to it. Remember, I found files going back years.

Mac, Windows, Linux, Android, USB key – when you delete a file, it’s not removed from the drive. It’s just forgotten by the system.


The first person I told about this experiment, and my results, asked a very good question: “So what should he have done?“. A very good question – too many times we’re ready to shoot the messenger, instead of heeding the warning. The point of this article is to convince you to take necessary precautions to protect your data any time you transfer ownership of digital storage.

Her second question was “Should he have formatted it instead of just deleting?“. And the answer is no. Formatting doesn’t remove the information. It just creates a new “big list” like I talked about earlier – the data is still there.

What he should have done is to wipe the drive before selling it. Wiping the drive rewrites the entire drive (or just the free space, depending on settings) with random data. It forces the computer to dump out all the boxes, and fills them with junk. You’ll want to do several passes to make sure. Be prepared to devote several hours to this – it would be best to do overnight while sleeping.

So how do you wipe your drive? I’ll go over the procedure for Windows, since that’s what I’m most familiar with. I don’t know the software options available for the other systems out there today, but a quick Google search for “wipe hard drive” with the name of your operating system will turn up many options and detailed instructions. Don’t worry, it’s very simple to do.

For PC:

First, you’ll need some software. My personal recommendation for this is CCleaner from Piriform. There are other option, of course, but CCleaner is excellent, it is free, and it has many other handy tools as well.

The first step is to delete everything you want gone. That means emptying the recycle bin too. If you’re wiping the entire drive, which you should do to external storage before selling it, you can skip deleting all the files.

Start CCleaner. You should see this.


On the left hand side, select Tools.


Select Drive Wiper from the options that have appeared.


The first box gives you the choice to wipe the empty space only (in which case non-deleted files will be left alone), or the entire drive, where everything will be removed. If you’re doing this to a laptop’s hard drive, you want the empty space only option. Be sure to have deleted everything you want gone first.

If you’re clearing external storage (USB, SD card, external hard drive, etc…) to sell it, it would be better to select entire drive.


The next box gives you the option to choose the number of passes. Three is good, seven is better, and 35 is, frankly, paranoid. I’d say go with seven, but be aware that your computer will be at this for a long time, so if you’re pressed for time, choose three.


Now, in the Drives box, be very sure to select the correct drive! Once you are certain you’ve selected the correct drive, click Wipe.


Once the software is finished, congratulations: you can sell your drive and know that you haven’t just handed all your sensitive data to someone else!


Writing Challenge Day 30 [MAKEUP]: Yourself

Well, that’s it. The final post. I’m a day behind, and I really botched the schedule of this challenge, but oh well. I’m dragging my butt across the finish line.

So the final prompt is myself. Well… crap. What can I say about myself that isn’t already in my bio?

I’m a goofy-looking guy with a goofy personality. I know people taller than me, but not many. Being a big guy has some advantages, sure.

But I don’t like it. I haven’t been able to purchase shoes normally for years. I don’t get the pleasure of walking into a store and finding a style I like. They invariably don’t have it in my size. I’m lucky if they have ANYTHING in my size. Instead, I have to order my shoes off the internet, and have them shipped. Even then, it’s hard to shop by style, and my options are rather limited.

Overall, I like to think I have a good (although highly self-deprecating) sense of humor, even if my friends find it a little strange sometimes. And unfortunately for my boss, who probably wishes I’d shut my trap for once, I’m not shy about saying what I think, especially when I’m unhappy with something.

Overall, I’m ok with being me. There’s nothing horrible about it. There are a couple benefits. But if I could change something, I wouldn’t mind having smaller feet, being a little less hairy, and a lot smarter, thinner, and better looking. Not so much to ask, is it?

Check out our other participants here –

Niki: Sometimes I Write

Becky: Free2B2Much

Tracy: CountryRoadChronicles

Writing Challenge Day 29 [MAKEUP]: A Random Person

At an estate sale after my grandfather passed away when I was little, I stumbled across a collection of books. These books didn’t look like the colorful, illustrated books I had at home. They were relatively nicely bound, they had the titles impressed on the front – they looked official; they looked important.

They were the complete works of Frost, Shakespeare, Poe, and Conan Doyle. I’d been tasked with taking stuff out of the garage and putting it in the “for sale” area, but instead I approached my mother with the books and my best “Pleeeeeeeeeeease?” expression. It didn’t take much convincing.

I read much of Poe and Shakespeare. I read ALL of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. I couldn’t get enough.

One thing I always loved about Sherlock Holmes was that throughout the story, the clues are laid out for you – you can solve the mystery yourself, if you know how to interpret the clues. I never did.

Most modern adaptations of Sherlock Holmes are concerned with his interactions with Dr. Moriarty and Irene Adler, but in the books, these characters only appeared in a few stories. Most of the stories were more ‘one-off’ affairs, sort of like a TV episode, where everything is wrapped up at the end of the story.

In the books, Sherlock Holmes was obsessed with cigar ash. He had categorized, catalogued, and could recognize the ash of any tobacco. He was also obsessed with disguises, and in contrast with some recent depictions, only rarely fought – though he was quite capable of doing so.

One thing that has made it into most adaptations, but which surprised my young mind nonetheless, was that Holmes was a drug addict. Specifically, a heroin user, albeit an arguably high-functioning one.

It’s been said that Sherlock Holmes was based off a real person that Conan Doyle had met. A doctor that was so astute in observing his patient’s symptoms that he could tell you with little to no difficulty exactly what ailed any particular person without much need for examination. I don’t know how true that is, and it must be seen through the lens of outdated medical practices and beliefs (which were much simpler), but it’s still a fascinating thought nonetheless, don’t you think?

Oh, also: Sherlock Holmes NEVER said “Elementary, my dear Watson”.

Check out our other participants here –

Niki: Sometimes I Write

Becky: Free2B2Much

Tracy: CountryRoadChronicles

Writing Challenge Day 28 [MAKEUP]: A Historical Figure

Oh lord. A historical figure. The amount of leeway here is frightening. Anybody? Throughout history?!

Eventually, I decided on Gregor Mendel. Who’s that, I hear my readers who didn’t pay attention in biology asking?

Gregor Mendel was a monk. He’s also more or less the father of modern genetics. Wait, what?

It had long been understood that you could breed two things with desirable traits and produce an offspring with that desirable trait. But until Mendel, no one had really troubled themselves too much with the WHY? part of the equation. Mendel, however, wanted to know what was going on.

So he experimented. With pea plants. He noticed that some of his plants were yellow, some were green. Some had wrinkled pods, some had smooth. Some were tall, some were short. So he started breeding plants. And breeding plants. And breeding more plants.

And he discovered that if you bred two plants with opposing characteristics (yellow/green) for example, all their “children” would be of ONE variety. But THEIR children would show the other characteristic about 1 out of every 4 times. Eventually, he solidified this into the concept of dominant and recessive genes. You can chart these pairings, and predict their offspring, using what looks like a tic-tac-toe board (Punnet Squares, if I recall my lessons correctly).

I like Mendel’s story for two reasons. One, everybody knew this was a thing, but Mendel actually looked below the surface and searched for the WHY. He was curious. I love curiosity.

Also, it’s not often we owe major scientific breakthroughs to monks.

Check out our other participants here –

Niki: Sometimes I Write

Becky: Free2B2Much

Tracy: CountryRoadChronicles

Writing Challenge Day 27 [MAKEUP]: Someone You Only Know Online…

…but would like to know in person.

I don’t have much choice here. Pretty much everyone I interact with online are people I have met in person. Whether that’s people I knew in person and later found online (like the folks from Dry Bones, or the previously mentioned ‘Samus’), or people I originally met online and then met in person (like fellow blogger Bill Davis or my now ex-wife).

So this post is about P Irate Rule. What can I say about P Irate? The fact is, after much thought, not much.

A long time ago, in a Facebook far, far away… Niki and I used to play Draw Something through the app on FB. I don’t even know if that app is still functional. But it was more multiplayer, and one of the people we ran across was P Irate. We liked the way she played, the cut of her jib, if you will, and invited her to play with us more often. One thing led to another, as they say…

Since then, have I learned much about P Irate? Well, I gather she has a SO, and she posts a lot of funny stuff on FB. That’s about all I know. But I’d love to buy you a coffee if you ever make your way to northern France. Do pirates drink coffee? Maybe a beer then.

Check out our other participants here –

Niki: Sometimes I Write

Becky: Free2B2Much

Tracy: CountryRoadChronicles

Writing Challenge Day 26 [MAKEUP]: A Coworker

A coworker. I’ve got a few of those. Which coworker do I write about? I’ve already written about a couple of them.

A lot of folks in the translation department are parents. Nearing on half. And since the depart of our Russian translator, I’m the only father on the team.

One of the ladies on the team, aside from being every bit as much a coffee addict as me, has a daughter just a bit younger than Matthew. But they’re close enough in age that they hit the same phases around the same time, more or less, and we’ve passeda fair amount of time sipping coffee and discussing, and at times, whining about, our children.

She and I disagree on some aspects of parenting – what to let the kids watch, for example (you mean you DON’T let your daughter watch Terminator?!) – but we agree on quite a bit more, and I know I can always count on her for a wise and valuable second opinion, or at least just reassurance that I haven’t scarred my son for life.

So, coworker of mine, I owe you a coffee. Meet me at my desk at 9:30. 😉

Check out our other participants here –

Niki: Sometimes I Write

Becky: Free2B2Much

Tracy: CountryRoadChronicles

Writing Challenge Day 25 [MAKEUP]: Your Favorite Alien

An old image of Invader Zim I created specifically to serve as an avatar.

Those that know me will perhaps not be surprised to learn I had much less difficulty with this prompt than with many of the others on the list. There are a lot of options to choose from. Spock. Paul (Paul nearly won). E.T. Mork from Ork.

But… my favorite alien has to be Invader Zim. Period. Zim, as you might have guessed, is an invader. Or rather, he desperately wants to be. Sadly, he’s horridly incompetent, and not terribly bright. But what he lacks in skill, he makes up for in passion. Almost.

The series, appropriately titled Invader Zim, begins with him showing up uninvited while Invaders are assigned planets to overthrow in preparation for the Irken Armada’s next operation: Operation Impending Doom II, and making it awkward until the Almighty Tallest (they choose their leaders by height – I would be a god) assign him to a “mystery planet”, which turns out to be Earth. If you’re wondering what happened with Operation Impending Doom I, well… Zim happened.

The rest of the series follows his desperate, megalomaniacal, and ultimately ineffectual attempts to assess Earth’s weaknesses and take control, thereby proving himself and making the Almighty Tallest proud. Words cannot adequately express the sheer level of awesome absurdity that this show attains, so I leave it to you to discover in your own time.

Check out our other participants here –

Niki: Sometimes I Write

Becky: Free2B2Much

Tracy: CountryRoadChronicles