What is a hard disk drive, and why should I care?
The hard disk is the component in your computer that stores your personal files and operating system files, that is, the files the computer needs to start up and present you with a desktop. For this reason it is sometimes referred to as 'memory'. However, this can cause confusion because there is also a component in your computer known as RAM (Random Access Memory) which is also termed 'memory' and this does a very different job. So if you want an everyday expression for the role your hard disk plays, 'storage' is it. As you will see, thieves are interested in it even if you aren't. But first...
|What does it look like?
Most hard disks look like this:
|And have interior parts that look like this:|
The first thing you will notice is the disk platter itself. These have a highly polished surface that stores all your data as those 1's and 0's magnetically. The needle reaching over the surface of the disk hovers on an impossibly small cushion of air above the surface of the disk as it spins at 7200 revolutions per minute.
|Where is it in my computer?
If you have a desktop tower, it is usually mounted in behind the front bezel below the CD/DVD drive, as you see here.
|Where is it in my laptop?
In your laptop it is usually accessible from a removable panel on the base near the serial numbers, like in this example. This can differ from model to model though.
Why do I need to care about my hard disk?
The obvious answer is that it has your personal data on it. This is no doubt valuable to you. If your hard disk fails, you could lose that precious information. Being an electro-mechanical device, all drives will eventually fail, so it is important to have a backup system. An external hard disk is an excellent to way to do this.
There's more to this issue though. News stories (eg. Dateline – SBS, Sunday 2 October 2011) have exposed the illegal disposal of e-waste to places like Ghana, Africa. E-waste is the term used for the electronic equipment our consumer-based economy discards every year. We've all done it; bought a new television/printer/computer/camera/phone/all-of-the-above and thrown out the old one. Maybe it was working, maybe it wasn't. But it's old, and it's out. Where does it go...? Since everyone is doing it, it's become an enormous problem, but this problem has created an industry. Some in this industry are claiming to dismantle these products for recycling, but are in fact putting it all in a shipping container and sending it to Africa among other places.
What's this got to do with my hard disk drive?
Good question. The thing is, other people think your personal data is valuable too. Criminal entities in places like Ghana are paying up to $200 for hard disks that have been retrieved from old computers that people have thrown out. They are looking for tax file numbers, bank account numbers, dates of birth, anything that might present an opportunity to commit fraud. If you throw out your computer because it's old and leave the hard disk in it, that valuable information could end up in a criminal’s hands.
It is important to note at this point that deleting a file or folder does not necessarily destroy it forever. Software is readily available that can recover deleted data.
What can I do to ensure my personal data is not accessible to criminals?
You have a few options.