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.
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.
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.
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.
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.