Deuce the Hard Disks
Nuke, for profit and safety.
May 28, 2016 Note
Shortly after writing this article, I came accross an empirical study into claims that data can be recovered from a hard drive with expensive enough equipment. The conclusion was that there has been no recorded cases of such a thing occuring. You may then consider much of this article to be "future-proofing" for a time where somebody may be able to, though as for today, you may breath easy knowing that your data is well and truly deleted.
Gentlemen, in the very instant before I decided to write this piece, I had invented a story the scope of which was so epic that it spanned the entire age of our current universe, stole formless chaos from another, manipulated the collective psychology of every sentient thing in our reality, and culminated in the showdown between the most fundamental forces to ever exist, ending with the Original Man and having creating a universe anew, exactly the same, but without the things that we learned to ignore - those that exist only in the most nascent of our most primal thoughts. Those things which go bump in the night.
It is unfortunate then, that I do not have a team of talented animators to make that vision happen, and indeed I would bastardise the idea with my slow artistic schedule and lack of experience in most of what I have described. So instead, I will sling you some ideas about organising your digital files, keeping them safe, and reducing your online life down to its most basic forms. This is minimalism, and it keeps your mind safe from the bogeymen of eras past.
Although I have described the fiction of Gods, reality lends itself to mundane problems, some of which existing forever. One of which is materialism, not learning how to give up your stuff. I won't get into the psychology of which, but it is a simple opinion that the more "things" you have, the more time you spend maintaining and looking at them, distracting you from the real emotional labour of doing something brilliant with your life, trapping you into a fake one.
The more stuff you have, the easier it is to profile you, the harder it is to keep safe, and the harder it is to avoid correlating the publicly available data online with whatever happens to be on your hard drive. This is not to say that any data exists about you online, but that if it did, anything on your storage devices would be used to link up your online persona with your offline. This would be very bad for you if you were a government target, or the target of a different criminal group that wishes to harm you.
So for safety and mentality, let's begin cleaning the crap out.
A basic rule to follow is that if you have installed some programs that you have not used for over a month, then it is unlikely that you will need to use it again. Every time you install a program, accept its updates, and keep it nascent on your computer, you're giving it permission to do whatever it wants to your computer in the time that you have it installed. It keeps data on your registry, in your filesystem, and in the clear to be analysed, and provides a ton of information for a forensics expert to tear apart and build a case around.
Typical uninstallers will leave behind evidence of their existence in the filesystem and the Windows registry, meaning that it isn't well and truly uninstalled (important to note that some programs write to the registry for DRM purposes, to restrict your freedom and prevent you from using the program however you want). The unfortunate part about Windows is that there isn't a built-in solution to this problem, and you have to use a proprietary program like Revo Uninstaller to remove all of that junk, in which case you can set your firewall to block the program from sending data back to the company.
While a separate uninstaller program is evidence that you have something to hide, such evidence is extremely circumstantial as the program is supposed to (as it's closed-source and we can't verify what it actually does) wipe any evidence of "naughty" activity from your computer, and having a program that has been installed by tens of millions of people for legitimate purposes isn't evidence of anything. You'd need a really shitty lawyer to mess up the point that badly.
However, even doing a deeper uninstall than what Windows provides still means that there's some remnants of data still on the hard drive, just in places which isn't easy for you to access. This can be prevented by using portable versions of software, which means it exists only in a folder and doesn't write any data to your registry. It still exists, and can still be run, it's just that it leaves less of a trace on the computer you use it on, as well as being easy to delete and scrub securely (more on scrubbing later).
So to solve this, you'll need to clean up all the miscellaneous clutter using another program.
Windows, because needing to know about Windows is a necessity in today's world and everybody else doesn't need my help, actually has a built-in cleaner called Disk Cleanup. It's already a part of the Windows botnet, so your system was already compromised, and it works well enough. Of course, "well enough" is what gets criminals convicted, as well enough leaves behind evidence for law enforcement to eat up like a turtle eats a bug.
We need to go deeper. Closed-source, your best bet is CCleaner (set your firewall once again), which is extraordinarily useful as it cleans up the remains left behind from a lot of different programs during normal use, including a registry cleaner so that it leaves behind next to no evidence (except for that of CCleaner itself, though it's used by like two billion people, so don't worry about that). Open-source, you can use the less thorough BleachBit, which deletes a lot of stuff very quickly, so you may want to consider it if you need to save seconds for whatever reason. Protip: don't use it in a raid unless you have thirty seconds to spare. If you don't, just hold down your power button for five seconds so the cops can't say you have incriminating stuff on it. They might still take your hard drive, but it'll be harder to get a search and seizure warrant.
The chances of you getting every single remnant of every program you have ever installed, and deleting it all, is pretty much zero. There are many dozens of ways that a digital forensics team can retrieve data from your hard drive, all the way into doing electromagnetic hard drive scans that requires millions of dollars worth of equipment and weeks worth of time. This isn't likely to happen to you, unless you're a terrorist (Hi, ISIL), though all the mundane ways that a forensics expert can snoop your computing history is so plentiful that I can't explain them all in detail.
You may want to read a book called "The Basics of Digital Forensics", which explains all the ways a typical forensics expert would snoop your computer, and how a typical user would prevent that from happening. The biggest problem with the book is how it assumes everybody is a criminal. Well, it's a fucking good thing I'm not a criminal, or I might have been insulted by your condescending attitude. And it's a real good thing nobody else on this website is a criminal, because that would be illegal, and bad, and we wouldn't be able to obey the arbitrary rules set out by our government. And that's terrible.
(note: Neocities censored my Pirate Bay link, even though there was no infringing content at all. That's fucking fantastic. Don't claim to be against censorship while babysitting your users, asshole. Do you realise just how stupid that is? If somebody wanted to download a book, they would. Whether or not I link to it is irrelevant, as you have simply delayed the process and stifled free speech while you have done so. From the bottom of my heart, and your broken HTML editor which won't even let me copy and paste, fuck you.)
That GOOD wipe
The downside to these methods is their removal of data without actually scrubbing it from your hard drive. If you know how a hard drive works, it's just a magnetic disk that stores your data in a series of yes/no states. When a file is deleted, it still exists on the hard drive, but the operating system can't access it until it's eventually overwritten due to everyday use. But because it exists, special tools can retrieve all that data that the operating system skips over, such as the ones forensics experts use, or some asshole with a used PC and a copy of Recuva, which is actually useful for deleting all the crap your other programs missed.
So the way secure deletion works is that a program runs over all the unused space on your hard drive (the space that the operating system marks as "empty") and scrubs out all of that data with random garbage, or zeroes it out by marking all of the data with zeroes, which effectively blanks it. At this point, it is highly unlikely that anybody will be able to retrieve your data, unless the program messes up or logs your data. It's mathematically possible for somebody with extraordinarily expensive equipment to gleam your data with a certainty above 50%, but let's be honest: you're not important enough for somebody to waste their time on that.
Also, please don't ask me how a Solid State Drive (SSD) works. Nobody understands how they work. If you're building a new PC and you're concerned about privacy, weigh whether the speed increase of an SSD is worth the security risks that SSD's have, such as not being certain that your data is encrypted and not ever being able to be securely deleted like a hard drive can be. If you only use your computer for web browsing, media watching, and occasional gaming (tip: SSDs only speed up loading of games, not the actual performance, and they're negligible on emulators), consider using the tried-and-tested hard drive.
So, how do you do this? On Windows, CCleaner, Revo Uninstaller, and BleachBit will all do it for you under a name like "free disk space", which is just going over the free disk space and doing what I described. Revo Uninstaller and the FLOSS Eraser (but don't choose "NoRuntimes", as it's broken) will also do it for individual files, in case you've had a change of heart with your refined collection of bestiality and want to delete that forever.
In the event that you want to delete everything off your hard drive, you'll need an off-disk program to do so. Deleting everything off a hard drive includes your operating system and every single file that has ever existed on it, leaving only the smallest of data crumbs on the disk, which are likely to be immediately overwritten with the installation of a new operating system.
Programs like CCleaner and Eraser have options to physically erase hard drives that don't host your operating system, which is good enough if you're concerned with external drives. It is more likely that you want to nuke your operating system as well, to have a fresh start with a new OS. For that, you'll need an external storage medium like a USB drive or a CD and download a copy of Darik's Boot and Nuke onto it, and then run the program when you start your computer up by pressing F1, or whatever button changes your PC boot order (tip: watch carefully when your computer first starts up).
So if you've backed up and encrypted any files that you want to keep (using 7zip's add to archive mode, perhaps), change the boot order to whatever you installed DBAN on, and then follow the instructions. One wipe is enough for most people, and three is if you're paranoid. Anything more than three and you're wasting your time, as that'll wipe out all of the data on the disk without leaving anything that's useful to a forensics expert.
After a day or two, the drive will be pretty much wiped. For added security, you can install a free operating system like Mint and encrypt the entire disk with Veracrypt. If you're planning to re-use it, use a secure password you can remember (unique, twenty digits, lots of variety, never written down, et cetera). If not, type in a hundred digits with random characters, symbols, and spaces, making it cryptographically impossible to decrypt. This will mean that a third-party will have to waste time wiping the drive again, further making it impossible to link to you.
In the event that hardware destruction won't work for you, as in the case that you've written down some government secrets (Hi, ISIL), there is one final solution (no relation).
Actual meatspace destruction
We're doing it.
First, physical destruction is unnecessary for the almost everybody. A hard drive is only as good as the data it holds, and you've already removed all of the data. It's a waste of money to not keep it around in case you want a new PC or something, or even as an external hard drive you can give as a gift to a party you trust. So don't get needy with the need to destroy something, okay?
Secondly, most data destruction methods are bullshit. Microwaves, power drills, and thermite aren't effective, and is a waste of time. There's no cheap and easy way to make sure your hard drive is 100% destroyed, so what's the most effective?
Do what the USA government does. Use an industrial shredder and destroy the drive so finely that nothing can retrieve it. Just go to a junk yard and ask them to crush it into a hundred pieces. Better than leaving it around, I reckon.
Or just use a gun, or a hammer, or some other highly destructive brute-force method (tip: use safety gloves and goggles) and then pick up the pieces and send it to a recycling center. It's not as good as shredding it, but it's still beyond the reach of pretty much everybody who will touch it.
If you take the steps to regularly clean all the junk from your operating system, wipe the free space from your hard drive regularly, and then nuke your hard drive whenever you feel the need to, you will have taken more steps to be anonymous and evidence-free than the vast majority of people who use computers.
The closest things we have to gods today is our governments, and the less information we give them, the more power we have as citizens to be able to do as we please to enhance our country. The greater steps you take to secure yourself against a rogue state and malicious cops, the harder it will be for them to punish you for crimes you didn't commit.
So please keep your data secure, and please keep learning more about how to do just that.
Gain new insights, and it's all thanks to Froghand.
Today's page was updated on May 28, 2016!
Chop, kick, break those disks you know!