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How do I remove myself from a machine?

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How do I remove myself from a machine?

The scenario looks like this: you’re ending a long and successful relationship with your employer (or maybe a not so long or successful one). But while you were there, you were allowed to make use of your assigned computer to do things like check your personal email, use an instant messaging client, check in on Facebook, and maybe even surf the web occasionally for non-work related things.

Now on your way out the door, you’d like to make sure that your personal account information isn’t left behind. And perhaps clean up a few other traces of your activities as well.

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It can’t be done completely

Before I begin, I’ll caution you: there’s simply no way to ensure that all traces have been completely and irrevocably removed. The only way to do that is to reformat the machine that you’re leaving behind, erasing everything on it, which I’ll assume that you’re not going to be allowed to do.

The steps here will keep honest people honest and make it difficult, but not necessarily impossible, to recover some of your information. Not only are systems too complicated to ensure that, but should someone have enough interest and resources, it’s possible to recover a tremendous amount of supposedly deleted information. It’s not easy nor cheap, but it is possible.

Before you even start using someone else’s computer, even at work, be aware that you will leave a trail. I’ll include some hints to make next time a little easier as well.

Bye Bye!Chatting and Instant Messaging software

Particularly in the workplace, IM software seems to be a particularly convenient and not terribly intrusive way to stay in touch with friends, family, colleagues, and more.

There are several things you’ll want to check out before you … check out:

  • Message History: Make sure that it’s not only turned off, but deleted as well.
  • Auto-Login: Make sure that this is turned off.
  • Remove Your Account: This one’s a little less obvious. Even without auto-login selected, your account may still be listed as an option for logging in to whatever IM program that you’re using. Look for ways to delete that, if you can.
  • Change Your Password: This is just good practice, but do it from a different machine – such as your own, at home, where you know that your activity is not being monitored.

Exactly how you do each of those things or whether they even apply will vary depending on the specific program that you’re using.

Web browser

In an effort to be helpful, most web browsers will remember a lot of information that you’ve supplied as you’ve used them. Some things to do before you leave include:

  • Clear History: This is the list of sites that you’ve visited over some period of time.
  • Clear Auto-Fill: These are the suggestions that appear when you’re filling out online forms or occasionally just typing things into the address bar.
  • Clear Remembered Passwords: While having the browser remember passwords for you can be a convenience, realize that your information is present for anyone who uses that computer after you do.
  • Clear the Cache: The cache is a speed optimization that makes the browser display web pages more quickly. It also leaves a trace of what websites you’ve been visiting recently.
  • Clear Cookies: The cookies left on your machine by the websites you visited amount to a record of which sites you were visiting.

There’s actually a strong argument to clearing absolutely everything your browser will allow you to clear.

Email

This will vary a lot based on the email client that you’re using, but in general, these are the things you’ll want to look at:

  • Empty Deleted Mail: Empty any “deleted mail” folders that might have personal emails or information.
  • Remove Personal Mail: Scan for personal mail in all remaining folders. You’ll have to understand what’s appropriate to delete and not. You may also want to copy items in some way if you want to save them for yourself. Don’t forget the “Sent Mail” folder, if you have one.
  • Delete Your Personal Account: If you’ve configured your email program with your personal email account in addition to any work-related accounts, make sure to delete your personal email account settings.
  • Change Your Password: Again, this is just good practice, just in case you left a trace of your personal email account on the machine. And again, do this from a different machine, ideally your own, after you’re completely done with your work machine.
  • Compact Folders: After you’ve deleted your personal email above, compact folders if that’s an option in your mail program. Messages can sometimes be recovered from uncompacted files.

In the future, you might consider using only a web-based email reader to access your personal email on your work machine.

Windows

Spend some time reviewing what’s in the My Documents or similar folders, including the subdirectories therein. My Downloads is one example where items could be left that you’ve long forgotten about. Be sure to copy any files that you want to (and have the right to) take with you.

Consider running CCleaner, the Windows general purpose clean-up tool. It has options to delete a lot of history, temporary files, saved passwords, not only for Windows, but for several very common applications as well. When you’re leaving a work machine behind, this is a case where it makes sense to let CCleaner be quite aggressive about deleting things.

16 comments on “How do I remove myself from a machine?”

  1. I use a program called CCleaner (crap cleaner). Its free and does everything (and more) of what you’ve just said – and it deletes things permentally. Just because something’s deleted from the hdd’s page file doesn’t mean its removed or overwritten on the HDD. As file recovery software becomes increasingly cheap and effective, the paranoid have nowhere to turn to.

  2. This is good advice for people who have the opportunity to do this. I know of a couple of cases where people who after having given notice weren’t allowed to touch their computers anymore and were immediately escorted off the premises. Apparently, the companies were afraid they would do something to harm the company. So it might be a good idea to do this clean-up before giving notice, or to be really safe, do it now and avoid using the company computer for anything which might be able to come back and haunt you. Your company can legally watch every keystroke you type on their computers.

    • I just simply don’t use a business computer for access to my personal services. Never have and never will.

      I used to just wait until I got home to check my personal stuff. These days, and portable devices being the norm, it makes things a lot more convenient in my favour.

      Using a work computer for your personal logging-in sites? Perish the thought. [shudders]

  3. As I was reading the section about browser cache, stored passwords etc tidying, my initial thought was what if your company uses the Chrome browser? Not likely I know as most companies with an IT function default to IE. Unless you’re *really* careful with this browser you’ll have to disconnect the synchronisation that goes on otherwise the next time you synch at home or via your smartphone, all the stuff you get rid of from work goes there as well. This is where a useful feature of Chrome can become somewhat of an annoyance.

  4. I read this article looking for how to remove all reference to my name from a computer. During initial setup, Windows or the computer or both ask for a name, and I unknowingly type mine in. I want to change it to something generic. I tend to pass computers along to people and don’t want them to have my name. This probably applies to computer name, workgroups of whatever kind, or other owner info.

    • I use both CCleaner and PrivaZer. Privazer finds and cleans more stuff, but takes a long time to run. CCleaner is faster and pretty darn good of it is for regular daily use. If you are removing yourself from a machine, definitely PrivaZer.

    • Defragging might help, but it wouldn’t guarantee that files couldn’t be undeleted. The free space wipe on a utility like CCleaner would be a more sure way to accomplish this.

  5. In anything but the smallest companies, your Human Resources droids will have notified the IT droids of your termination date. Depending on how zealous IT is, you will find your account inaccessible on that date (maybe late or surprisingly early). Make sure you have everything off your machine (like if you want to export your contacts or address book or whatever) before that last day. Also, be sure to unsubscribe to any professional newsgroups and send out a change-of-status email to whoever you think will need it. In effect, your last day should not require you to even look at your computer, because if your IT is zealous, it will be a dead terminal.

  6. This will not be possible at the largest companies. I work for a very large corporation with more than 100,000 pc’s. IT has restrictive policies in place to prevent downloading or executing unauthorized programs, so Ccleaner and Privazer are out. ALL email is cached on the servers, and automatic “My Documents” folders backups are scheduled weekly to the network. All workstations that we use are shared among many employees. None of these things can be changed by individual users, except by deleting old personal archives.

    On top of that, we have roaming profiles enabled, so that if we are on a temporary assignment all the way across the USA, our files are still available when we log in to another computer in the domain. Since I personally log in to 5 or more local workstations, as well as remote workstations, in the course of my work, my files are everywhere, for as long as the archives exist. Some of my coworkers have 15 years or more of old emails and other correspondence on their systems and the servers.

    We can’t make any assumptions regarding the security or lifespan of any of our data, since the data is migrated automatically when our systems are upgraded. We are not authorized to delete or remove our own accounts, this can only be done by IT per management instructions. Usually, the accounts are not even deleted when the employees leave the company, as I can see their users’ folders years after they have left.

    Good luck removing your data!
    Don

  7. I retired from the federal government 4 years ago this month. The best I could do was to delete the emails and search history on the hard drive. Due to constant backups I knew the data was there on the backups but I made sure someone would have to look long and hard if they wanted it for some reason. I never never used my computer for anything personal I could not back up with an excuse in relationship to my personnel needs. No porn, no playboy, no nothing. I was not stupid and that is one reason I survived for 37 years. Good luck to all

  8. Thought I did a good job cleaning up my laptop when I resigned from a company two years ago but your article tells me I failed miserably. Earliest hint was when a former colleague called me to mention their amusement about a personal document I had scanned and saved on that computer.

  9. For some reason, all of a sudden I cannot logon to my laptop. After entering my password, I get a message stating, “Your User Profile Service service failed the logon. User profile cannot be loaded.” It seemed to happen just after I used Turbo Tax last year, although I can’t imagine that would affect the operation. Any thoughts?

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