Donating Computers to Charity

The Goodwill of the Coastal Empire stocks more than just clothing and housewares. These days, you can often find a good bit of computer hardware, and even software. "People have been bringing computers to Goodwill as long as people have been using computers," president and CEO Bill Oakley told us. "There's a lot of interest in the community for used computers."

The Goodwill says they're great sellers and help the cause, but sometimes, donors give more than they should. "Sometimes people will give us machines with a lot of personal information, and we can't promise to preserve that information as confidential to the donor," said Oakley. "We tend to pass things on largely as they're received, so we would certainly encourage the donor to remove any personal information."

The computer experts at Savannah's PC Doctors tell us internet-connected PCs often store more personal information than you may think. "Windows stores lots of personal information in lots of different places that is very difficult for an individual user to get to," said systems engineer Falko Sims. "There is much too much information that somebody can learn about you. Your buying habits, the kind of places you frequent, your friends and associates for that matter."

You want to get rid of personal information before you give away a PC, but if you deleting it and emptying the recycle bin is enough, think again. "It doesn't actually erase it like taking a pencil eraser and erasing something on a piece of paper," said Sims. "All it's saying is, 'Oh, you get to use this space over again.' But until it's used over again, the little bits that make up the information are still there."

Restoring that information is as easy as downloading an "undelete" program from the internet. They scan for files that have been deleted through the operating system but still exist intact on the hard drive. Though there are plenty of legitimate uses for such retrieval programs, someone could also use them to get personal information you thought you'd done away with. (For some examples, follow the links above left.)

To fully get rid of the information, you need to overwrite all of it. Fortunately, there are utilities that do just that. Disk wiping software can rewrite your entire hard drive several times over; some are so thorough as to be certified by the US Department of Defense. While this also removes the operating system from the PC, the hardware remains functional, and you or the recipient can install new software on it. (For some disk wiping software, follow the links above left.)

While the local Goodwill encourages computer donations, officials remind you to be careful of your personal info. Also, they ask that you donate only machines that are not too terribly old; obsolete PCs will not do them much good. As Oakley put it, "We encourage people to pass on to Goodwill what you would give to friend in need."

Reported by: Charles Gray,