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How Do I Remove My Personal Data from My Computer Running Windows 10?

I’m very tempted to simply say you can’t.

It’s exceptionally difficult to do. Windows stores so much information in so many nooks and crannies, it’s nearly impossible to know what to delete and from where.

Let’s look at a couple of approaches.

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The nuclear option

By far the safest approach is to wipe the machine and reinstall Windows 10 from scratch. That’s really the only way to be certain.

You’ll have erased absolutely everything — Windows, installed programs, data — and, most importantly, every scrap of personal data that might be on the machine. It’s all gone, guaranteed.

That’s what I recommend you do if at all possible.

Deleting DataParticularly with Windows 10, you won’t need to worry about activation — that’s tied to the hardware. All you’d need to do is download a Windows 10 installation disc, boot from it, and install, making sure to erase the hard disk as part of the process.

The downside, of course, is that everything will be erased, including the non-personal data. All the installed programs will be removed, for example.

Such is the cost of safety.

The least worst less-destructive option

If you don’t like the idea of a reformat-and-reinstall, the only solution I’d consider would be the following sequence:

  1. Create a new Windows user account with administrative privileges.
  2. Log out of your existing account and log in to the computer using that newly created account.
  3. Delete the old account completely.

Once you’ve done that, definitely take the time to scour the machine for additional data you might have placed outside of Windows default locations. In particular, look at the various applications you have installed on the machine, and see where they have been storing data. You may find it in several different places.

Unfortunately, there’s just no guarantee that absolutely everything you might consider to be “personal data” is removed.

Are you sure you wouldn’t rather just reformat and reinstall?

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23 comments on “How Do I Remove My Personal Data from My Computer Running Windows 10?”

  1. Dear Leo,

    When suggesting to delete your previous account you did not provide info on how to properly do it.
    IMHO first you need to do backup of all the data you want to preserve from old account.
    Then with Windows 10 Pro or Enterprise when log as other admin user right click on This PC, choose Properties->Advanced system settings->User Profiles->Settings, choose old profile ->Delete.
    After finishing, right click on This PC->Manage->Local Users and Groups->Users, select old user->Delete.
    HTH

    • Hi Vlad,

      Here is how I got rid of my user account on my old computer … by accident. I am totally blind since birth, and I am a screen reader user, so these steps will use keystrokes, not mouse clicks.

      1. Go to the Control Panel.
      2. Press Enter on “Administrative Tools.”
      3. Press Enter on the folder called, “Computer Management.”
      4. Press Enter on the folder called, “Local Users and Groups.”
      5. Go to your user name.
      6. Press Delete, and press the “Yes” button after that.

      I hope this helps.

      As for the other comments and Leo, I absolutely agree reformatting would be the best option.

      To the user who suggested removing a drive, how would one do that? I’m sure it’s a totally visual process, but I’m curious anyway.

      • For those who are blind, substitute the word “click” for “press Enter” and it should work. As for removing a hard drive, it would be difficult to give instructions on how to do it by touch.

        It’s different for different computers. On most desktops open the case, disconnect the cables and remove the screws. You can Google hard drives to get pictures of the drives and SATA and IDE to see what the connectors look like. Laptops are more complicated. Some have a removable cover over the disk drive. Lately, it seems, more and more laptops require opening thw whole case and removing the drive. Again, you can google to see what a 2.5″ laptop drive and connectors look like. Again, you would remove the screws and unplug the drive.

  2. When giving away a computer, why take any chances at all. The ” nuclear ” option is always best, because you don’t know where your computer may end up eventually. I know that when I get a used computer, I don’t care if any programs are installed or not, I prefer a clean machine that I can customize to suit me, not what suited the person before me. And chances are, that clean or not, I will nuke it, and reinstall Windows anyway.

  3. My suggestion to my customers when donating any machine; remove the drive! If it makes you feel better, replace it with a new one, drives are cheap. Image the drive before you remove it, wipe it/recycle for your own use or reinstall to the donated machine. Old drives make for excellent data storage but only if you Backup your backup. I preach to my customers the way Leo preaches to us, back up, then back that up and then one more time! I also give them the resources to back-up and teach them how to use it!

    I run a one man in home computer upgrade/repair/cleanup service, I only charge for parts but with the understanding that each customer provide/purchase an external drive for backup or I will not work on their machine. I hear it everyday, I lost important/sensitive data, can you help get it back? Depending what happened, probably not.

    I have no mercy or sympathy for repeat offenders; they have a choice…buy me dinner or buy me beer! Its become quite humorous to see a neighbor walking up with laptop under one arm and 12 pack in the other! I seem to always have plenty of beer!

    • Actually in my experience that’s not necessary. Most often licensed software can be transferred without too much hassle. (They have to be able to handle cases where the hard drive dies and you don’t have an opportunity to uninstall.)

  4. For basic removal you could use “Reset my PC” and select remove personal data
    or for a nuke type removal i would use “diskpart clean all “”
    Removing and replacing Hard drives is not always practical especially if its a modern notebook like a Dell XPS or a Surface Pro

    • FWIW, I have used KillDisk for cleaning up several machines that I gave to nieces/nephews/churches. It is much easier than fretting about what may or may not be left. KillDisk cleans the free space as well.

      The only caveat is that you need to have a legal installation disk/image to reinstall the OS before giving it away.

  5. After deleting the user account/profile you should also use something like ccleaner to do a “wipe free space”, otherwise any user files may be recoverable.

    • Jim made the point I was looking for. As well as deleting all of your personal files on “traditional” Hard Drive type storage, using either of the 2 methods in the article you should do something to wipe the free space on the hard drive to make the deleted files unrecoverable.

      CCleaner is one approach. I use it and like, but some people don’t. There are many other reputable 3rd party tools that do the same sort of disk wipe process.

      Another is to use the build in Cipher command in the command window using Run As Admin rights:

      cipher /w:C

      This will write to all of the unused space 3 times, making the old data unrecoverable. Cipher is part of Win 7 / 8 / 10

      In PowerShell there is the Clear-Disk command. It wipes the whole disk. You would use it before doing a clean install.
      https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/powershell/module/storage/clear-disk?view=win10-ps

  6. First question I’d ask someone in this predicament is: Why don’t you know where all your data are located? As Leo said, you’re not going to get rid of your personal data no matter how much you uninstall, clean, wipe, or change users. And you’ll repeat the same inadvisable approach on your next computer. One alternative: whenever you save or download anything make sure you know where it’s going. Change the storage location to a dedicated personal drive or a dedicated personal folder. That way you can just delete or take away your data (of course, with the caveat that there will still remain some personal markers on the Windows drive and the understanding that some your data is in databases at Microsoft, Google, Facebook, etc.)

    • It’s not a question of not knowing where you saved a file. It’s the hidden files saved by programs. Those are files you are not expected to access except through those programs and some might have sensitive information in those files.

  7. I agree with Leo that the reinstall method is the safest and best way to go for these reasons.
    Of course the best reason is all your personal info will be wiped out.
    Any hidden malware, viruses and spyware will be gone along with whatever programs that may be slowing it down.
    If there is any system rot it will all be repaired by being replaced and have all the fresh updates.
    “It’s best to give it time to update instead of using a machine that’s trying to download and install updates.”
    It’s a good idea to reinstall when getting a used computer because you don’t know the history.
    Why stick your neck out when there are so many benefits from a fresh install?
    Such nice feeling to have a safe fast running machine that performs flawlessly.

  8. Sure one can eliminate everything from “a” computer, but that doesn’t remove anything from any where else i.e. other computers that received emails, social media coments … Changing your name, your whole identity, not very likely. Going to the obits to recreate oneself doesn’t work everytime either. Very few, are invisable.

  9. Today’s e-mail of 10-19-18 provides a link for an article about updating BIOS from (Ask Leo!) by Leo Notenboom, FYI.

  10. Do we need to delete info from a printer before donating it? If so, how? I’ve seen videos of people in other countries accessing personal info from donated printers – everything that had ever been copied!

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