How to permanently delete files from a Windows PC

If you are disposing of an old PC or laptop, you really need to make sure that you are not giving away any of your personal files or sensitive data stored on your hard drive.

The low-tech option

The surefire way to prevent this from happening is to remove the hard drive and drill a hole in the disk. But perhaps you are giving your old PC to someone in your family or a friend and would like to also give them the hard drive with a Windows license and perhaps even your version of Microsoft Office too.

If so, here’s a useful tool that makes this process more secure and doesn’t require a power tool.

Deleting doesn’t really delete

When you delete files on a computer they don’t actually get deleted. The space on the disk where the files are stored are flagged as deleted, but the files are still there until the space they occupy is reused by other files. This is how law enforcement agencies and hackers are able to access deleted files and it is pretty easy to do with some free tools that you can download online.

However, Microsoft provides a small utility that is already installed on your PC that can ensure that the files you delete cannot be restored. Amazingly, this tool has shipped with Windows since Windows XP (2001) and very few people (even technical people) know about it.

Meet Cipher

The software program is called “Cipher” and it is a command line utilty (no user interface). It was originally designed for encrypting / decripting files and folders (hence the name).

But there is an option that you can select that will actually permanently remove any free space on your hard drive by writing over all of the files that have been “deleted” (deallocated) three times.

Don’t forget to delete

It’s important to note that it only deletes the free space on your drive. This means that it doesn’t wipe your hard drive or remove any software you have installed. But it does mean that unless you delete your sensitive files, they will still exist – so before you run this, delete and uninstall everything that you want to get rid of.

How to permanently delete files

To use Cipher to clear all your free desk space permanently, then please follow these steps:

  1. Quit all programs (you want to let Cipher do it’s thing without interference)
  2. You need to open a command prompt – but you need to ensure that it has Administrator rights and so click on the Start menu and then type “Command” (don’t press return)..

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  1. Right click on the “Command” option and select “Run as administrator”

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  1. In the command window that appears, type in “cipher /w:c” (assuming that “c” is the drive that you want to clean up, if not replace with your alternative)

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  1. Wait. It can take a while to overwrite all the data three times. When it has finished, it will return back to the command prompt. Simply type in “Exit” to close the window (or press the X at the top right of the window).

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That’s it – so remember to delete what you don’t need first and then run “cipher /w:drive” and you can be sure that the files cannot be recovered ever again.

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