Hard disc with cover removed

Hard disc with cover removed - don't ever remove the cover if you want the drive to work again!

Disposing of your old computer may not be as easy as might imagine.

You can not simply put it in a wheelie bin, destined for landfill. Computers contain several metals that will poison the ground. There are EU laws banning disposal in this way. Either take it to a local authority waste disposal site or contact your council to make a special collection.

Before disposing of it, though, it is prudent to ensure that no-one can get at the data on it. This applies whether the machine is going to cyber heaven or on to a new owner. Here’s a list of the broad options available to you:

If the computer is condemned

1) Remove the hard drive and keep it.

Pro

    1) If the the drive is still readable then this gives you a backup of your data. You will need some means – such as an external USB drive case – to connect this drive to your new computer if you wish to read it.

    2) There is no possibility of its contents falling into the wrong hands.

Con

    1) It can be a bit of a chore geting the drive out of the case (particularly on older laptops).

    2) You do have to keep the drive somewhere (although, as my mother used to say, “it won’t eat any meat”)

2) Remove the hard drive and destroy it.

If you open up the case of a hard drive and deface the mirror-like surfaces with a screwdriver or sandpaper then you are almost certainly putting it beyond any readability or use. I agree that it may be technically possible for someone with all the right (very expensive and specialist) equipment to read fragements of the drive, but I would rather start worrying about the possibility of being hit by a meteor than worry about this happening.

Pro

    1) There is virtually no possibility of data falling into the wrong hands

    2) You don’t have to keep the drive

Con

    1) You haven’t retained any backup of your old machine

    2) It can be a bit of a chore actually geting the drive out of the case (particularly on older laptops).

    3) It can be difficult to open up the case of a hard drive in order to deface it

3) Delete everything off the hard drive

You could use a software utility such as CCleaner to completely wipe the drive (including the operating system and all programs and data – whether deleted or not)

Pro

    1) Easier than removing the drive

    2) You can’t forget to delete specific data files

Con

    1) You need to install and run the software and it can then take quite a long time to “scrub” the drive in this way (particularly if you set the software to make multiple “passes” over the drive).


If the computer is going to a new home

Removing the drive is a bit drastic. It is likely that the new owner won’t have the expertise to source a new drive, install it, and re-install the operating system and software. In fact, even if s/he does have the knowledge and resources it is very likely that it just won’t be worth doing. So, the aim is to pass on the computer so that it can be used with the minimum of fuss but without compromising your data. The options are:

1) Delete sensitive information

This includes your data files, your browser history, saved passwords etc. You may also need to un-install software that is licensed to you that you intend to install on your new machine.

Pro

    1) This is the least amount of work you need to do in order to protect your data.

Con

    1) You may miss some data when deleting.

    2) The deleted data may be recoverable. If you have the slightest doubt about the integrity of the new owner or the destiny of the drive then the data that you think you have deleted could be vulnerable. This is because “deleting” data in the normal way does no such thing. What actually happens is that the operating system maintains a directory of the files that occupy the different parts of the drive. When you delete a file it simply changes the directory such that the space occupied by the (deleted) file is now eligible for re-use (ie the space can be over-written with a new file). The file itself is still present on the disc until the space is re-used and it can be “un-deleted” using special software tools.

Scrubbing brush and hard disc

2) Delete sensitive information and then “scrub” the drive

This consists of deleting the data as above, but then running special software that over-writes the space that may still be occupied by readable data. The software that I recommend for this is Piriform’s CCleaner.

Even this process can sometimes be “reversed” by highly specialised people and facilities. Frankly, I’m back to worrying about the meteor before worrying about this possibility. And if you are as paranoid as this, then you may also wish to consider the possibility of data still being present on the drive due to the drive head having shifted fractionally over time such that data you wrote onto the disc a long long time ago is still readable at the very edge of the tracks of data.

Pro

    1) Fairly easy to do and should satisfy the non-paranoid

Con

    1) You may still fail to delete important data

    2) Won’t satisfy the paranoid. If you belong in this category,then I recommend that you read this article on data remanence

3) Delete everything off the hard drive

You could use a software utility such as CCleaner to completely wipe and scrub the drive (including the operating system and all programs and data).

Pro

    1) You can be sure that you didn’t leave anything behind that you would rather have deleted.

Con

    1) You need to install and run the software and it can then take quite a long time to “scrub” the drive in this way (particularly if you set the software to make multiple “passes” over the drive).

    2) The new owner will need to re-install the operating system and software.

Conclusion: whether your old computer is at the end of its life or going to a new home you will almost certainly need to take steps to protect your confidential data prior to disposal.

Female face, obviously frustratedWeb browing can be frustrating. Apart from connection problems and slow computers, we can often be thwarted by different kinds of computer problems that crop up on specific websites. These browsing problems are often caused by the particular combination of computer hardware and software, and sometimes caused by human error other than your own.

Stating the obvious, computer hardware and software is very complicated and it changes all the time. Sometimes things are just bound to go wrong when one thing doesn’t talk nicely to another. Something that worked yesterday may not work today simply because (for instance) you have done what you were told by the prompt that nagged you to update your Adobe Flash Player.

Websites that don’t display properly

I recently had a very frustrating experience during an onsite computer session when trying to download a file from Dell. I just could not find the button to initiate the download process. It got so bad that I even checked their help files and wondered whether to ask them for some tech support. The web page kept reassuring me that I had put the file in my “basket” and that I had installed the “download manager” but I just could not find how to start the download. Eventually it dawned on me that the instructions were so straightfoward about telling me to “click the download button” that I wondered if the “download button” was just not being displayed. So I went slowly around the white space of the screen, clicking everywhere. It worked. For some odd reason the button was invisible (probably printing white text on a white background).

In retrospect I should have tried a solution that often works with website problems – use a different browser. It’s just possible that that would have been the quickest solution. For the first half hour of my frustration, though, I assumed that the problem was my own fault of not being able to see something that should have been right in front of me.

Website thats don’t compute

A pencil broken in frustrationNot long ago I was providing some home user support for a client who asked me to help her place an order on a website. Trying to do it on her own, she had been unable to find the “checkout”. Well, when we looked at it together we still couldn’t do it. We gave up in the end. There was just no way that we could follow a path through the website that took us from the stage of “placing the item in the basket” to placing the order. There was some horrible flaw in the design of the website. It wasn’t my client’s fault and it wasn’t mine. We went to Amazon instead.

This brings me to another obvious suggestion. If a website is driving you mad because you seem to be going round in circles then ask someone else to look at it with you. Computer assistance is often as valuable from a family member as a computer support specialist. You may just need someone to confirm that you’re not missing something obvious. My thinking is that if two people looking at it together can’t work it out then it’s a badly designed website rather than a technically-challenged user. It seems to me that a lot of people assume that this sort of problem is “their fault” when, in fact, it’s a badly designed website.

Along similar lines, I rcently tried to buy some copyright-free images online. I’d previously created an account and then I spent ages making my selection of images. When I got to the checkout, however, the website detected that I wasn’t currenlty “signed in” to my account. Instead of giving me the opportunity to sign in at that point it insisted that I either abandon my basket (and then sign in) or create a new account. This is just bad website design. OK, I admit that I have a low frustration threshhold coupled with high expectations of other people’s competence. Nevertheless, my main point still holds: the fault wasn’t mine and there’s no reason why I should criticise myself for incompetence (intolerance, maybe, but not incompetence).

Missing add-ons

Another area of frustration can be that you think you should be looking at a video on a website or some other bit of fancy eye-candy and you just can’t see it. This can be caused by not having an important “add on” installed on your computer that the website is trying to call upon. You’ve probably noticed those irritating nags telling you to update Java and/or Adobe Flash Player. Although this is irritating it’s worth doing as this software is needed to run some of the fancier bits of website pyrotechnics. Also, using out-of-date versions could pose a security threat. So, if you think you should be looking at something fancy and it’s not there it’s worth looking to see if there’s a hint somewhere on the screen telling you that you need to install something before you’ll see the fancy web content. Only do this on websites you trust, though: clicking on links that claim to download add-ons like Java can expose you to risk. See my blog post on download risks for further information.

Printing problems

If you are trying to print a web page and it either won’t print at all or prints very badly (eg with lots of white space and different elements printing on different pages) then it’s worth looking to see if there’s a specific “print” button embedded in the web page (as opposed to starting the printing by using the browser’s print command). This is because the website will then send a version of the page to your printer that is optimised for printing rather than displaying as a web page. And if that doesn’t help, or if there isn’t a special print button, then try a different browser.

Conclusions

1) Not all websites are perfectly written or tested. Having a bad “user experience” could be the website’s inadequacies and not your own. Ask someone else to look at it with you.
2) Try viewing the web page in a different browser. You can have as many browsers installed as you wish. They won’t interfere with each other in the way that antivirus programs do. See my post on browsers for installing more browsers.

Yes, personal computing is 30 years old. The IBM 5150 was launched in August 1981. It wasn’t the first self-contained desktop computer: IBM had been producing them since the mid 1970′s. This one, however, was much cheaper and it sold by the bucketload.

The idea of devolving control of computers to the actual user of the data seemed quite revolutionary. I was in Marketing Management at the time and it was the realisation that I could soon be using a computer to provide me with marketing information derived from sales information, customer information and so forth, that led me off to Manchester to study Systems Analysis and Design. Not everyone bought into the idea so quickly, though. For a long time there were a lot of managers (male) who wouldn’t touch a computer on their desk as they associated them with typewriters and typewriters, of course, were used by (female) secretaries and not by (male) managers. At this time I think everyone thought of the PC as something for business users. The home computer user hadn’t really been invented yet. Lots of people had BBC and Sinclair computers, but these were thought of as games machines and “educational tools”.

IBM 5150 Personal ComputerYou can’t tell by looking at it but the IBM 5150 weighed a ton. The screen, the monitor, and the keyboard were all extremely solid and heavy. No colour, no internet, no USB ports, no music, no Windows, not even a mouse. Even then, though, we had word processing (eg WordStar and WordPerfect), spreadsheets (eg Supercalc and Lotus 1-2-3), and database systems (eg dBase and others). I spent my first years in computing developing database applications using a program called Everyman.

Note the twin floppy disc drives on the photograph. The 5.25 inch removable and changeable floppy discs that went into these drives had to hold everything – operating system, programs, and data. Some machines only had one floppy drive – and the earliest discs only had a capacity of 160kb.

The “operating system” is the programming that controls the actual programs and data, and makes it all play nicely with the physical hardware. The most common operating system in those days was “MS-DOS”. IBM did a deal with the creators of “MS-DOS” (Microsoft) to use their own version of this (called “PC-DOS”) in IBM personal computers. The operating system designated the floppy drives as “a:” and “b:”. When hard drives came along the operating system – naturally – used “c:” as the letter to designate the hard drive. Life’s got a lot more complicated since then but almost all Windows computers still use “c:” to designate the first (or only) hard drive and then other devices (such as DVD drives, USB pen drives) are allocated letters further down the alphabet.

A single jpg photo from a modern but ordinary 7 mega-pixel camera is probably going to be about 1.8mb in size (say, 2000kb). Therefore, one single photo from an average digital camera in 2011 is about 5-6 times the size of the entire disc space available to the first PCs (which may have had to contain, remember,the operating system, the program and the data all on one disc).

Olivetti M21 Transportable Personal ComputerMy own first proper computer (let’s not count my Sinclair ZX81 – great fun and very instructive but no business tool) was an Olivetti M21. This was designated as a “transportable” because the screen and system unit were integral and the keyboard clipped to the front. I had a mid-engined Fiat X1.9 at the time and the Olivetti would just – but only just – fit in the luggage space under the bonnet so that I could carry it around for onsite computer support. There wasn’t any room left to carry anything else. If I had a passenger they had to nurse my briefcase on their lap. I did try to carry the M21 on the tube once or twice, and that probably explains why my knuckles now hang rather close to the ground. Officially called a “transportable” computer, it was more often known as a “luggable”. At 15kg, it weighed about as much as 6 or 7 modern 15inch laptops – and you also had to carry boxes of floppies, the mains cable and adaptor, manuals etc. All this and no internet! I can’t imagine that in those days I ever thought of possibilities like remote computer support, but I do remember having a modem and some sort of online connection as far back as about 1984 or 1985.

Red Fiat X1.9 sports car

Completely gratuitous picture of a Fiat X1.9

The screen on the Olivetti M21 was just 9 inches across the diagonal (as all screens are measured). The whole machine measured 40 x 32 x 10 cm. Like the IBM 5150, my M21 started off with twin floppy drives (but we had, at least, progressed to 360kb discs by then). It was a huge milestone in my computer consultancy career when I bought a hard drive from a client when we upgraded him to a bigger drive on his Olivetti M24. We still argue about just how big those drives were, but they were either 5mb upgraded to 10mb or 10mb to 20mb. A good, big drive today is 2 terabytes (approx 2,000,000 mbytes) so a modern drive is 100,000 times the size of a drive from 1984.

My M21 cost about £2000 in 1983 or 1984. Together with a printer (a Panasonic dot-matrix) and some essential software, my first “system” came to about £3000. That’s about £8000 in today’s terms (source). Hmm, maybe that iPad wouldn’t be such an expensive luxury after all.

Large eye through a magnifying glassWe may be fighting a losing battle with online privacy. As mentioned in last week’s blog on Internet Privacy, companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon hoover up every crumb of information they can glean about us and use it to target us with ads and content that they think will appeal to us. As far as I know there’s isn’t any perfect strategy for maintaining online privacy, but there are lots of small things we can do that will certainly help.

I’m not concerned here with security on the internet as it relates to the safety of children, or trying to hide our identity so that we may be completely untraceable. I’m just trying to keep down the amount of un-necessary information we give to the likes of Google. These tips are equally valid in a home computer or business computer environment.

So, here are some tips. They’re not listed in any particular order. Some are easier to put into practice than others:

  • Create another email account that you never intend to use for “real” email. Don’t include your own real name in the account name and don’t give real data when completing the compulsory items of information in the account profile. Quote this email address on any websites that demand you supply one and where you don’t expect a normal, ongoing, email exchange (since you don’t want to have to keep checking this account for incoming emails). Having an “anonymous” account like this also helps in keeping spam out of your main email account.
  • If a website demands that you give personal information that is not connected with a financial transaction nor has other legal implications, then LIE. I will NOT give my real address or date of birth online when there is no legitimate NEED for it (and there are few legitimate needs except the protection of the other party in financial transactions). If I am entering a compulsory date of birth on a website where this is “relevant” (but not essential for financial reasons) then I enter a date that is close to my own (so that it makes no difference for the legitimate purposes of the website) but from which I can not be traced.
  • When filling in online forms, exercise judgement in completing any item that is not marked as compulsory (usually indicated by an asterisk or written in red). If they don’t require you to give a date of birth then why would you? If an item is compulsory but impertinent then LIE.
  • Don’t click on any “like” buttons in Facebook or anything similar (eg in Google).
  • Don’t take part in online quizzes or polls.
  • Preferably, don’t use Facebook at all. If you are a Facebook user and have any concerns at all about the privacy of your data, read this article about Facebook’s attitude to privacy.
  • Magnifying glass over computer keyboard

  • If you’re still keen to use Facebook, go through all the settings and mark everything private except what you explicitly wish to share.
  • If you use LinkedIn, do not click on ads without first changing your privacy settings to exclude monitoring your activity re ads.
  • Do not use Gmail or any of its branded versions (I think Virgin’s webmail is one of those). Google reads your emails and bombards you with “appropriate” Google ads (sponsored links). See last week’s blog on Internet Privacy.
  • If you must use Gmail, at least ensure that you sign out when you are not actually using the email as Google records everything you do in your browser if you are logged in as a Gmail user. They then use this info to target you with Google ads. I also sign out of other sites, such as Microsoft Live, as soon as I’ve finished with them.
  • Disable or remove browser add-ons that place “toolbars” and/or “search boxes” at the top of your browser. These often have tracking software in them. Incidentally, your browser performance will also be improved by doing this and your browser screen will be less cluttered.
  • Be very careful about “linking” any social networking site to any other (by giving any of them permission to access others). You might add data to one program, believing it to be private, forgetting that you have linked it to another program that sucks in what you thought was private data and spits it out somewhere more public.
  • Set your browser so that all cookies are deleted as soon as you close the browser (but this has implications – read on).
  • Set your browser to delete your browsing history as soon as you close your browser.
  • Set your browser to disallow third party cookies.
  • Turn off Amazon browsing history.
  • If you use Firefox or Chrome as your browser then you can install AdBlock Plus. This will stop most ads from appearing while you are browsing.
  • If you use Firefox, another excellent add-on is Better Privacy. This deletes the “flash cookies” that are placed on your hard drive by Flash Player. Flash cookies (also known as LSOs – Locally Stored Objects) are not removed or blocked along with other cookies.
  • Do not be misled into thinking that “private browsing” will give you any protection. It does suppress evidence on your own computer but it does not prevent sites you visit from recording your activity. Nevertheless, it may help to turn it on.
  • More technical ways of throwing websites off your scent include using proxy servers and using a dynamic IP address.
  • If you want to make an online purchase from a website that you don’t completely trust, you can use a prepaid Mastercard. This will limit your financial exposure to the value on the card and will also keep all your personal information from the website.

As if all this wasn’t already a nightmare worthy of a Kafka novel, some of these measures nullify others. You can turn off Amazon’s “browsing history” and, similarly, stop ask.com from retaining your history but the instructions to turn these off are held in cookies so if you delete cookies (as recommended above) you’re back to square one with these two sites. Doh!

Some of the tips above are easy to carry out and others less so. I haven’t attempted to give specific instructions (eg for different versions of different browsers) as it would just take too long.

If you’d like some help in tightening up your online privacy, contact me to arrange either a computer support visit or some online remote support.

Remote Support may be suitable for this topic

© 2011-2014 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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