Walt Mossberg

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Mossberg’s Mailbox

How to Wipe a Hard Drive Clean

There’s no other major item most of us own that is as confusing, unpredictable and unreliable as our personal computers. Everybody has questions about them, and we aim to help.

Here are a few questions about computers I’ve received recently from people like you, and my answers. I have edited and restated the questions a bit, for readability. This week my mailbox contained questions about “file wiper” programs that permanently erase a hard drive, staying safe at public wireless hot spots and sorting USB cables.

If you have a question, send it to me at mossberg@wsj.com, and I may select it to be answered here in Mossberg’s Mailbox.

The community where I live has a one-month period (April this year) where you can dispose of your old computers. I have several old PCs around the house, but want to clean out the hard drives. Can you recommend a good program that can clean sensitive data off a hard drive?

There are a number of such “file wiper” programs, which permanently delete files so that they can’t be recovered. Some are free, but the one I recommend is called Window Washer and costs $30 from Webroot Software Inc. It can be purchased at Webroot.com and elsewhere. The program, which also performs other tasks, has a file-wiping function called “bleaching.” It can be used multiple times.

Does the security I’ve installed for my home wireless network protect me when I take my laptop to a public hot spot? If no, what can I do to protect against snoopers there? I run both Windows and Apple laptops.

No. The wireless security in your home is a network feature, not a laptop feature. It doesn’t come along with your computers when you use another wireless network. At a public hot spot, you are sharing a network with strangers. So you can’t entirely guarantee your security and privacy from prying or malicious people in the vicinity. However, I would turn off all file-sharing features on the laptop, make sure a firewall is running, and avoid doing anything sensitive online, such as financial transactions.

If one has a box of unlabeled USB cables, is there any way to sort USB 1.1 cables from the USB 2.0 cables? Or is there even a difference?

You can’t sort them, and in most cases there is no difference. Older USB cables that were certified to work on the older 1.1 ports should also work perfectly with the faster USB 2.0 ports. The USB 2.0 standard was designed to work with the same cables as USB 1.1. In fact, I have never seen or used a USB cable, no matter how old, that couldn’t be used at full speed with USB 2.0. However, some cheaply made older cables that weren’t certified might fail.

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