How to really, truly delete something

When you "delete" a computer file, is it really gone? You may be surprised to learn that the answer is no.

At first, this might seem obvious. For Windows users, the deleted file goes to the "Recycle Bin." This gives us the chance to "Restore" the file in case we really didn't want to delete it. By highlighting the particular file in the Recycle Bin and clicking "Restore", the file goes back to where it came from.

But what if we want the file actually to be deleted? First, we can "Empty the Recycle Bin." Then the file seems to disappear from our computer. We can't find it in either the Recycle Bin or using Windows Explorer.

But is it really gone? Again the answer is no. For those of you who have taken Windows courses, you might remember that when a file is deleted, only a notation is made in the ledger that keeps track of files (the File Allocation Table). The space is noted as being available for new files, but the original file remains on the hard drive until the space is needed. It could remain there for some time.

If you've read this far, you might say, "so what?" Suppose you are about ready to get a new computer and contemplate giving away the old one. The hard drive in your old machine contains your Quicken program with all your checkbook and investment data. The "Outlook Express" program has a copy of all your old emails. And "Word" has copies of all your old letters. Do you want the new owner of your old computer to be able to access all of this data?

One answer to this dilemma is to remove the hard drive from your old machine, go out to your garage, and beat it with a hammer. By the way, this is what happens when Administrations change. All the hard drives go. They may not be destroyed, but they don't remain in the old computers.

The nerds reading this might say, "just reformat the hard drive." Unfortunately, reformatting does not remove all the data like the warning message indicates. It still can be recovered.

For the average user, does all this make any sense? The answer probably is no. Find all the data files and delete them and then empty the recycle bin. This will keep the "slightly nosey" out of your information. Then give the old computer to your kids or grandchildren. No harm done.

But what if you plan to dispose of the computer through Goodwill, or give it to a school? You want them to have the hard drive, but you want it "clean."

Fortunately there is popular software that will help you. Norton Utilities has a program called "Wipe Info" and McAfee has "Quick Clean." Either of these programs will work on selected files to clean out all the data and make them practically unreadable. They are inexpensive and effective.

For the really paranoid, there are a number of programs that comply with the Department of Defense directive 5220.22-M that specifies how to handle hard drives which contain "sensitive" data. One such program called "Secure Clean" with "Clean Drive" can be obtained from for less than fifty dollars.

For those interested in pursuing this topic further, go to and search for "DOD erase hard drive." Or go to "" and read some of their white papers. Learn all about how Magnetic Force Microscopy will let you recover computer data from all but the most securely erased hard drives.

If you have further questions about this or other computer topics, visit "Coffee and Computers" at the Tustin Area Senior Center any Friday morning starting at 9 a.m. Bring your questions or just come in and visit.

Also, mark your calendars for Friday, February 23, for a special session of "Coffee and Computers." Andy Thalken, Store Manager, and Lynn Strobel of the new Gateway store in Tustin/Santa Ana will be joining us to acquaint us with Gateway products, services, educational offerings and answer questions.

In the mean time, keep the neurons happy, the synapses snapping and enjoy computing.


Dr. Art Holub is a long time resident of Tustin and teaches computer and Internet courses at the Tustin Area Senior Center and the Tustin Adult School. Visit his web site at: This column is written to address the computer adventures and concerns of older adults. If you have comments, questions or suggestions for future columns, Email HIM at:

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