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How can I safeguard my PC's data when it is out for repair?

by Lee Koo (ADMIN) CNET staff/forum admin / March 13, 2015 9:00 AM PDT
Question:

How can I safeguard my computer's data when it is out for repair?


Hi, everyone, I hope you can answer my question. I plan to have my 5-year-old laptop running XP turned in for service as it doesn't boot up. In order to get the laptop serviced, it will need to be left behind with the service technician with hard drive and all. The big concern that I have is that my hard drive contains all my sensitive data. Is there any way to lock my sensitive data from the technician while it is with them? I have my data backed up. In fact, I have bought a new laptop already. But because of this outstanding concern, I still have not brought in the old laptop because I do not know how to safeguard my data. Can you help? Even though I have bought a new laptop, the situation could very well happen again with this new laptop and again I will be at a loss on how to handle protecting my data when it's being serviced. Any advice is appreciated.

--Submitted by: Carlos C.
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boot to a live linux disk
by renegade600 / March 13, 2015 9:15 AM PDT

depending on why you cannot boot, you should be able to boot to a live linux disk and remove your private data. There may not be much you can do if the tech decides to see whats been deleted but most would not. That is really all you can do to a non booting computer.

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for the future
by spadeskingtx / March 13, 2015 11:14 AM PDT

You can try what renegade said. Otherwise it will be difficult at this point. Just make sure whomever you take it to is a trustworthy place, even if you have to pay a little more.

Once you get it back though there are some things you can do for the future. Create separate accounts for use by technicians. For example I have a special account that I have set up so if I have my computer worked on I can give them that user name and password. That limits much of what they can and cannot see.

In addition I have a drive set aside in my system that is encrypted with trucrypt. Anything personal or sensitive I store here. Just make sure if there is anything there you will need relatives to have access to after you die that you leave the password in your safe deposit box or otherwise provide for the executor of your estate to have it. If you really want to be protected from prying service people you can keep all your sensitive files on a separate USB drive which you can again encrypt with trucrypt or other encryption software. Then when you take it in for service leave your USB drive at home.

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Future, not past.
by George VanWinkle / March 14, 2015 3:12 PM PDT
In reply to: for the future

TrueCrypt???

TrueCrypt stopped releasing new versions May 2014 and released a statement that "WARNING: Using TrueCrypt is not secure as it may contain unfixed security issues." This would make it a very bad choice for your encryption product. While the last release of TrueCrypt (v7.1a) is currently undergoing an audit to determine what flaws existed in the code and cryptanalysis, it has yet to be determined whether it is a really secure way to store your sensitive data.

While I agree 100% with spadeskingtx's recommendation that you encrypt sensitive data, I argue you should choose an encryption product which has a reliable name and staff standing behind it. The TrueCrypt team threw in the towel and walked away from it. There are many solid products available, and some are even built into operating systems. Check CNet for reviews of them before deciding on one.

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Spreading alarmist propaganda much?
by richteral / March 15, 2015 3:05 AM PDT
In reply to: Future, not past.

There are locally available resources to get clued on, like:

http://forums.cnet.com/7723-6132_102-619760/true-goodbye-using-truecrypt-is-not-secure/?messageId=5587889#message5587889

Or: http://download.cnet.com/TrueCrypt/3000-2092_4-10527243.html

With the latter, note the review; quote: "This gives us two qualifiers for reviewing all security tools: 1) is it open-source? 2) will it allow non-NIST standards? TrueCrypt answers yes to both." By sec.eng., should that be a clue.

Audit? Get your fill:
http://arstechnica.com/security/2014/04/truecrypt-audit-finds-no-evidence-of-backdoors-or-malicious-code/

https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2014/04/auditing_truecr.html ("I'm still using it.")

If I wanted to get a little paranoid, I should start with how come a FIVE-year old laptop runs XP. And if I wanted to get really, really paranoid:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/11394145/Gary-Glitter-the-predatory-paedophile-hidden-behind-a-Glam-Rock-superstar.html

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RE: spreading alarming proganda...
by dj_erik / May 1, 2015 11:17 AM PDT

First I agree that TrueCrypt as far has been analyzed is still probably the best tool to use, considering you have no clue what flaws, though some have been exposed in both BitLocker and Symantec, in closed commercial software. But I agree closed source is closed to both good guys and the bad, the only problem is the bad guys won't reveal the problems and just keep stealing.

Now the only problem I have is that you make encryption sound like it's only for criminals and pedophiles by your last remark. IMHO, that is the very same damned dangerous idea that LEO's have in the US. So while I want to protect my financial records and secure my login credentials to various services such as CNET, you make it sound like I'm a criminal. That is the very myth that Google and Apple are up against right now with Congress, and the last we need is more people to spread it around.

PS. I upvoted you, because I think your intent wasn't the problem, and just came out sounding that way.

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Thanks for this. Even if you used it.
by R. Proffitt Forum moderator / March 15, 2015 3:09 AM PDT
In reply to: Future, not past.
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I've wondered about this myself...
by Jamfan55 / March 13, 2015 11:19 AM PDT

maybe you could get them to sign some sort of confidentiality agreement?

as for me, i no longer keep anything significant on my computers, and write everything to an external hard drive

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How can I safeguard my PC's data when it is out for repair?
by richj120952 / March 13, 2015 11:34 AM PDT

First, before really sending an XP box out to repair, ask if you really need to spend the money it takes to do the repair. Most likely your box/laptop is worth less than $100. If the repair takes any where near that, it is not worth doing.

If I had the need to repair the box, I would take out the hard drive, and have the repair center use their own test drive, or simply boot from the CD/DVD to test the unit. The advice that you do the boot with a linux disk, is good if you know how to do that, and then since you have backed up the data check the disk, and repair it. Remember deleting data does not remove it from the disk. If you have a less than 250 G hard drive, it would be easier again to simply remove it, and destroy it. Have the repair shop give you an cheap one in it's place when they repair the computer.

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My way
by bobotaz / March 17, 2015 8:38 PM PDT
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How canI safeguard my PC's data when it is out for repair?
by jware1939 / March 13, 2015 11:42 AM PDT

I suggest you remove the hard drive from your old laptop and place it in an external SATA/IDE hard drive enclosure. Then connect the enclosure to your new laptop and download your data to whatever media you like. At this point you can reformat the drive from your old laptop which will clean it completely. You can then put the drive back in the old laptop and attempt to restore your windows OS or take it to the shop if you like. I use a Sarbrent drive enclosure for this type of problem but there are other brands out there. Hope this help.
JW

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Misinformation

The advice provided by jware1939 is severely flawed.

Formatting a drive will not prevent your private data from being stolen. Formatting simply creates new partition tables in place of the old ones. The data is still there, and can be accessed relatively easily with free open source tools. You need to actually wipe the drive.

If you wipe the data using a tool like DBAN (also free) you physically write a 1 or 0 over each bit on the drive making recovery of the data so difficult it requires an advanced digital forensics laboratory with tools so expensive that nobody would waste them on your drive unless it contained something of importance to national security.

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repairs
by janitorman / March 13, 2015 11:50 AM PDT

Depending on what really needs done to it, it's unlikely that the techs will have any reason, OR TIME TO, look into your private data. It's possible there's an unscrupulous tech out there who would copy, say, all your passwords and bank info and use them later, however, again, it's unlikely.
That said, you could also request to watch the tech as he runs the diagnostics, etc, if you're (obviously) not willing or able to do that, to find out why it isn't booting, I assume, at all, since you would have tried to start in safe mode, etc. already.
Also considering this is an XP laptop and out of support, and your data is backed up, why not have the drive wiped (after determining the problem) and/or install a new drive with something in support, such as a recent Linux distro, or Windows 7.
I suspect, however, your repair bill will run more than the unit is worth, so having the drive removed/destroyed and recycling the unit might be your best option at this point anyway.

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Maybe not.
by Backup Bob / March 13, 2015 1:32 PM PDT
In reply to: repairs

There are plenty of technicians who seem to have time to mine data from a hard drive. Once that machine is out of your sight you have no control over it and no assurance that someone will not go exploring. If I were working on the machine I would not want you breathing over my shoulder and neither would most technicians.

If you decide to upgrade to a new machine, and if your hard drive will boot up, get an image backup program (I use O&O Disk Image) and dump an image of the boot drive to an external drive. The paid version of Disk Image will let you mount the image as an external drive and copy individual files from it. You will lose some settings but you will maintain your data. Be sure to back up your favorites on the browser and dump any configuration files you may need before making the image.

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There have been instances of....
by btljooz / March 14, 2015 7:37 AM PDT
In reply to: repairs

There have been instances of technicians finding illegal content on machines and turning in the owner for that content. In the US it's the law that they do so. ....Just sayin'........

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Realistically you can't
by AZKID44 / March 13, 2015 11:54 AM PDT

Hey Carlos,

I think all of us PC users grapple with this question. It really boils down to the reputability of the store/company and its employees where you are taking it for the repair(s). Several years ago I took my PC to Best Buy and for me that was a mistake. There were at least 6+ different "techies" who worked for well over a week on trying to remove a nasty virus embedded in the Win OS. I was even told that one of the "higher level" techies was working on my PC remotely from his home !!! A lot of confidential data was on the HDD and fortunately I did not experience any security breaches after the PC was returned to me .... but maybe I was just lucky? (shrugs)

Fortunately, today I am able to service my own computers for the most part and maintain redundant backups, but I still ponder where I would take it for service in the event I had a catastrophic failure ? Confused

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Here are a Few Pointers
by Hforman / March 13, 2015 12:17 PM PDT

1. First of all, if you have unencrypted sensitive data on your PC, before this situation arises is the time to think about the security issue. Many times in home burglaries, a computer is one of the first things to go. The time to worry about hiding sensitive data is long before you fall into this situation. Many feel that having the computer in their home is some sort of safety net. It really isn't. Dealing with a laptop is worse because it can be lost or stolen a lot easier if it is not in your house.

2. For your "cannot boot up" issue, try this: boot from the XP install CD/DVD and follow the prompts until you get to where you can type in the letter "R" to go to recovery console (NOT ASR). When you get into recovery console, run CHKDSK. If that doesn't fix the problem, repeat and try FIXMBR. If your issue is with a blue screen, hit F8 in the boot process and select "Last Known Good...".

Other posters have great ideas too like mounting the drive as a second drive to another computer to get the data off and delete the old data. Also, booting using LINUX or other boot disks may help give you access to the files.

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The "install" CD/DVD.
by zammer8 / May 1, 2015 11:11 AM PDT

My computers always were sold with OS installed. (I think the great majority are.) An install disk never came with the computer.

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No install disk
by Shanidar / May 1, 2015 12:32 PM PDT
In reply to: The "install" CD/DVD.

No install disk cause most systems come with a "reinstall partition" that includes the entire factory installation. Check with your manfacturer regarding how to access and use this partition

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Definitely the way to go.
by Carsto / May 1, 2015 5:09 PM PDT

My Win 8 was forcefully updated to 8.1. Now Windows cannot see my back up files on an external hard drive. Now I do back ups of My Documents by copy paste and recover only the Windows structure to reset Program Files as installed and working already. A Linux trick is to save all your files on an external drive from the start anyway and take it with you wherever you go. Primitive? Yes. Inconvenient? Yes. Safe? Absolutely!

If none of the above works, then do get the data deleted off the drive somehow. Just remember to delete to US Military standards, five to seven times or so, or it may be possible that your data may be read anyhow.

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You're Half Way There Already
by Mr Windows / March 13, 2015 12:30 PM PDT

Carlos, as long as you have your Data Backed Up, you're half way to having your mind at ease. The first thing to do in cases like this is to make a full back up of all your Data. You've done that, good on you.

Now, using your new computer, download and burn to a CD "Darik's Boot and Nuke", a hard drive disk wipe and data clearing utility. You can find it at http://download.cnet.com/Darik-s-Boot-and-Nuke-for-CD-and-DVD/3000-2094_4-10151762.html, along with some pretty good instructions on how to use it.

Once it's burned onto the CD, take it out of your new computer, and put it in your old one. You may have to go into its BIOS, and change the Boot order to CD/DVD first. When you've done that boot to the CD, it has its own little operating system, and when you select your partition hit F10. That's it, you just have to wait while it does its thing.

The Nuke part in its name is true. Once it's finished all the data is gone. There may be ways to resurrect the data, but I seriously doubt that the technician would have those tools. You will of course lose your Windows XP, but if you have the Installation CD, or at least the Licence Number, he can put it back if you still want it. I hope this helped.

Addendum:

Carlos, I forgot to state the obvious. That is, when you get your now Working computer back from the technician, you can reinstall all your data, if you want to. However, it sounds to me like you should just reinstall your data to your new computer, and find a new home for your old one. But if you still want to use the old one, by all mean, reinstall the data to it.
The one drawback to using this method, is you will lose all your software programs. But as you couldn't boot up the computer to selectively destroy your sensitive data, this is the only option left to you, unless you are comfortable booting up a Linux distro. Even if you were, if your computer wouldn't boot, it's probably a hard drive failure. Then there's not much you could have done, even in Linux to get the drive to spin up, and be readable. All you Linux folks can start to correct me now.


Regards,
Mr. Windows

Note: This post was edited by its original author to merge additional information from second post to original response. on 05/01/2015 at 9:22 AM PT

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I forgot, my bad.
by Mr Windows / March 13, 2015 1:12 PM PDT

Carlos, I forgot to state the obvious. That is, when you get your now Working computer back from the technician, you can reinstall all your data, if you want to. However, it sounds to me like you should just reinstall your data to your new computer, and find a new home for your old one. But if you still want to use the old one, by all mean, reinstall the data to it.
The one drawback to using this method, is you will lose all your software programs. But as you couldn't boot up the computer to selectively destroy your sensitive data, this is the only option left to you, unless you are comfortable booting up a Linux distro. Even if you were, if your computer wouldn't boot, it's probably a hard drive failure. Then there's not much you could have done, even in Linux to get the drive to spin up, and be readable. All you Linux folks can start to correct me now.
Regards,
Mr. Windows

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IF the hard drive is bad...
by btljooz / March 14, 2015 7:49 AM PDT
In reply to: I forgot, my bad.

Mr. Windows is correct that not even Linux can make a bad hard drive
work again as this is a hardware issue rather than a software one.

IF the hard drive is bad, then there is nothing to worry about but replacing the hard drive with a good one to install another installation of XP or Linux on.

The old hard drive should then be physically destroyed because even if it doesn't spin up, the platter(s) can be removed and installed into a new housing rendering it able to be gone through and any sensitive data viewed and/or copied. The best way that I have found to do physically destroy and old hard drive is to get the platter(s) out of it and have a mechanic friend of mine take his cutting/welding torch to it. LOL!

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Faster and easier solution to wipe your drive
by George VanWinkle / March 14, 2015 2:51 PM PDT

I swear by DBAN as recommended by Mr. Windows if I intend to reuse the drive, but there is a faster and easier way to wipe your drive if you plan to get rid of the computer.

1. Remove the drive and take the drive to a TV Repair Shop.
2. Have them place the drive in the center of their degaussing ring and click the power button on the ring a few times.

This creates a strong electromagnetic pulse which wipes the drive. Be forewarned, it can also fry the electronics of of sensitive drives.

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You're Half Way There Already.
by Mr Windows / March 13, 2015 12:41 PM PDT

Carlos, as long as you have your Data Backed Up, you're half way to having your mind at ease. The first thing to do in cases like this is to make a full back up of all your Data. You've done that, good on you.

Now, using your new computer, download and burn to a CD "Darik's Boot and Nuke", a hard drive disk wipe and data clearing utility. You can find it at http://download.cnet.com/Darik-s-Boot-and-Nuke-for-CD-and-DVD/3000-2094_4-10151762.html, along with some pretty good instructions on how to use it.

Once it's burned onto the CD, take it out of your new computer, and put it in your old one. You may have to go into its BIOS, and change the Boot order to CD/DVD first. When you've done that boot to the CD, it has its own little operating system, and when you select your partition hit F10. That's it, you just have to wait while it does its thing.

The Nuke part in its name is true. Once it's finished all the data is gone. There may be ways to resurrect the data, but I seriously doubt that the technician would have those tools. You will of course lose your Windows XP, but if you have the Installation CD, or at least the License Number, he can put it back if you still want it. I hope this helped.

Regards,
Mr. Windows

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not good idea at this point
by renegade600 / March 13, 2015 12:54 PM PDT

If you are taking your computer to a tech to figure out why a computer is not booting, you really need the current installed operating system to help the tech to determine where the problem is. It could be a bad drive, it could be a corrupted os or it could be something else that just might take a few minutes to fix. Why nuke a drive and have to put up with all the reinstalls of programs, updates and drivers if not necessary.

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They Don't Need the OS
by Hforman / March 14, 2015 4:43 AM PDT

It all depends on what "can't boot up" means. If the user gets a message saying that the OS could not be found, it could be one of several issues. It could be that the "boot.ini" file is missing or corrupted, in which case this can be fixed by a FIXMBR off the recovery console on the install media. Or it could mean that the hard disk or boot partition is trashed. Running CHKDSK from the install media could fix that. In either case, a "skilled" tech should be able to fix this. Too many techs just want to flatten the drive and reload. Maybe the OP has a backup; maybe not. If the user is getting a "blue screen" on boot, then it could be a driver and he just needs to hit F8 and go for "Last Known Good". So, it all depends on what, exactly, are the symptoms.

If the original OS is just "not there", for the moment, the tech can load other diagnostics to see what is going on or can attach the drive as a secondary drive to a fully operating system.

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Better than 90% of the issues I see involve non-hardware
by R. Proffitt Forum moderator / March 14, 2015 4:58 AM PDT
In reply to: They Don't Need the OS

Something over 90% of the issues or complaints are non-hardware related. It's moved from hardware issues to malware issues by a landslide. So if they can't boot the OS then there's no way to show the issue to be fixed.

Times have changed. Big companies are now cramming their downloads with doucheware.
Bob

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You can't.
by Backup Bob / March 13, 2015 1:26 PM PDT

The repair shop technicians may be scrupulously honest or they may be slipshod. They may also be crooked. You have no way of knowing.

I read a story of a fellow who had a hard drive replaced. He asked for the failed drive but he was told it had to be turned in since it was under warranty. No matter, he was assured that the drive would be safely erased or destroyed and that his data was safe.

A few months later he received a call from someone who said they had bought the drive at a closeout sale. They found his data on it, including his financial records, and asked if he wanted the drive back. This fellow was lucky because the fellow who bought the drive was honest. Not all of us would be so lucky.

Some shops have been known to scour hard drives for data such as pictures, audio files, and videos. Those technicians have no right to that data but that does not stop some of them from "borrowing" it. There is nothing you can do to stop them.

I have done much repair work on personal computers since 1980 and I would never scan a hard drive for hidden treasures, but that is just me. I really do not want to know what is on there. If I have to open a file to test something I will open the last used file, ensure that it loads, and then close it. If I need to dig further for troubleshooting I will ask the owner to open files and test them. Not everyone is that honest.

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Remove the hard drive?
by ben_myers / March 13, 2015 1:37 PM PDT

It's easy for me to say, because I do it all the time. Remove the hard drive. That remains the best safeguard against losing your data or having it compromised or stolen. If you are unable to do it, ask the service tech to do it for you, while you wait and watch.

Of course, the hard drive itself may be defective, and the service person may be unable to service your computer. But, ya know, ya pays your money and ya makes the choice.

Also, assuming it is a Windows computer, you can move your data pretty easily from the old (and working!) computer to the new one, either via the network or one of the newer dual-headed Laplink USB cables. There are other ways to do this, too, but they are a little more complicated, even more so when the old computer does not boot up properly.

I once dealt with a client who had previously sent a computer back for repair by the vendor, then called me. When it came back, it had a hard drive with nothing on it. Not my fault, but I was the bearer of bad news, and that business relationship went nowhere. And that is typical of what happens when you put your computer into the hands of someone else. If you do not trust them, by virtue of a long-standing direct and personal relationship, don't trust them with your data either.

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Repairing an older machine
by wippernm / March 13, 2015 2:47 PM PDT

I repair laptops and desktops all the time. I don't charge for my service and only take what they give as they wish. Veterans are never charged period. I only charge the cost of the hardware and software that is left on the machine as part of the repair.

First off, any laptop that has xp still on it, is so far out of the current technology I would not invest a lot of time nor money on that device. I always tell or remove the hard drive from computers that are given away or recycled.

Depending on what the device was use, I either write zeros several times on a disk that might be used as extra storage. Most of the time the older hard drives are not that good even for that. Unless someone has a lot of money and time will they be able to recover a drive that has zeros written more than twice.

I have for higher profile individuals, destroyed the hard drive completely. I take it apart and destroy the disk from inside the drive. This is the only true way to protect your data and information.

If you are mostly using social media and email, most of the low dollars laptops could replace yours for the price of the repair and parts. Then you have the newer technology which will serve you much better.

And only let someone you trust to take a complete computer our of your possession for extended periods. I have some who will not let anyone but me touch their computers and many I can fix over the phone.

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