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I have a unique situation but will try form this as a generally applicable Q&A:

I must leave my Operating System intact, but completely wipe my information from the computer. How can I do this?

The 64bit CPU laptop is running Windows 10, after upgrading to it for free from Windows 8.1.

This issue stems from a separate problem with the laptop in question, calling for it to be sent in for repairs. The operating system needs to remain intact for service reasons. The operating system cannot be reset because the recovery partition is missing files for whatever reason and needs to be reloaded by the manufacturer I'm sending it to for service anyway. No recovery media is available. Before sending the laptop anywhere, I'd like to wipe all my information from it. (I have backed up all data including one backup with the system image, though I probably won't reload at. There is a limited amount of sensitive information and I might be able to handle it 'manually' using a tool like CCleaner, but this question still remains and I'd like to figure this out.)


I'm under the impression reformatting would be a good way to do this, since my goal is to have a 'clean slate' before sending this laptop anywhere. As I said however, there is no recovery media available and I need to leave the OS in-tact. I could reformat using a free OS (e.g. Ubuntu) but ideally could leave the OS as is so the system files can be examined as they are.

It's possible I'm wrong the OS can remain 'as it is' while I wipe the laptop of my personal files, and maybe I should reformat (the service center claims they'll reload the original OS and recovery partition anyway).

I'm also aware that casually deleting sensitive files may not cut it. In this particular situation, I don't expect having more to worry about than casual information theft, but I'd prefer to 'over-engineer' this security solution prior to leaving the laptop out of my control. CCleaner is a tool I understand does 'permanently delete' data beyond reasonable recovery in most cases, so that could work for me (I'm not trying to secure this against a major organization, just casual or determined criminals). I'm open to suggestions or hearing I'm wrong about CCleaner.

I have tried to look for answers to this question, and there are plenty of Q&As on SE about deleting personal info, but I haven't found any Q&As about, basically, how to get a clean slate while keeping an OS in-tact, without any recovery media.


So, to restate my question: How can I completely wipe my information from a computer while keeping the current operating system intact, with no access to OS recovery media?

  • You should be able to activate the factory reset (D2D) recovery options. You should look into that possibility before anything. If the computer is name brand and built for Windows Vista or later then it should have that ability. Furthermore if the OS is Windows 8 or 10 you can perform a reset of the operating system with options to keep or remove all of your personal files. – Jonathan Gray Dec 24 '15 at 18:55
  • It's not clear to me how secure that option is @JonathanGray. Do you know if it's a secure wipe? If so, how secure? – Neil Smithline Dec 24 '15 at 19:00
  • @NeilSmithline It depends on the software. I have seen D2D recovery software with the ability to go over the drive sector by sector with multiple writes to secure the data from being recovered. However that's not commonplace. Ultimate security would involve using a new harddrive and installing Windows fresh from that. However I would recommend that job to be performed by someone who already know what he or she is doing. – Jonathan Gray Dec 24 '15 at 19:21
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    @cr0 OEM copies of Windows 8 actually have the key embedded directly into the motherboard and there is no need to recover the key -- In fact doing so would yield a generic key that won't work for activation. You may have luck if your copy of Windows 8 is not OEM, or was reinstalled manually with a legitimate key. However I do not know for sure (I used to work for Microsoft [AnswerDesk]). If your copy is not OEM then you should have a hard copy of your product key on a sticker that came with the packaging for Windows 8. – Jonathan Gray Jan 12 '16 at 6:59
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    @cr0 There are different generic keys that Microsoft uses as registry placeholders in Windows (Microsoft no longer uses OEM VLK because of inherent activation security flaws, so unless you've manually inserted the key in it will definitely be a generic one that you can't use). Please see superuser.com/questions/749414/windows-8-placeholder-keys – Jonathan Gray Jan 12 '16 at 13:40
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Windows 8 and 10 have options to reset your operating system to factory defaults, with or without keeping your personal files.

Click here to see how to do that

Additionally, you can use a utility called eraser to securely erase free space left on the drive.

Click here to check out eraser

This combination would be the simplest method to accomplish what you want accomplished, to the level of security that would most likely suit your needs.

Edit: Microsoft designed their reset tool to be able to securely erase your data, suitable for situations in which the ownership of the computer itself is transferred. This means that eraser may actually be unnecessary. However I will keep it included with this answer for completeness purposes.

  • I can't use the OS-based tools. For some reason they all give vague errors that I'm missing files necessary for reset/reformatting. – cr0 Jan 7 '16 at 21:54
  • I should have noted earlier, this computer has just one hard-drive and it's a SSD. Is the eraser tool still applicable/safe? I think not but could be wrong. CCleaner helped but after deleting lots of things manually, upon reinstalling web browsers lots of settings were - surprisingly - automatically restored. I'll have to give it another try. – cr0 Jan 7 '16 at 21:56
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    @cr0 If you have an SSD it will be much harder to actually erase your data. The drive itself will most likely override deletion calls in order to spread the writes over a bigger area of the drive to make it last longer. However this might also work in your favour as it is not as easy to recover data from SSDs after a format. It is possible to restore the recovery partition on your computer, I have done it before but it's not easy. At this point I might just recommend getting a harddrive replacement to install Windows on manually. If you're comfortable and know how to install drivers and stuff. – Jonathan Gray Jan 8 '16 at 2:00
  • to restore the recovery partition, I'll have the manufacturer do that, as I need to have it sent in for a physical repair anyway (under warranty). So, the purpose of data deletion was information security while the computer is en route and out of my control. It sounds like as long as I make sure to delete all sensitive info, the SSD should be sufficiently challenging to steal any past data from in case it gets into the wrong hands. – cr0 Jan 8 '16 at 2:03
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It's very difficult to remove all sensitive files from a computer without a hard wipe. There are hidden caches, backup copies, etc. that make it almost impossible to completely wipe all personal data with 100% certainty (the other answer covers those options very well).

One option, if you have the Windows 8 key, Microsoft actually offers a download for installation media now.

https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/software-download/windows8ISO

You can download this, perform a hard wipe of the hard disk, then reinstall. If you don't know the actual Windows key, there are tools online that will pull it from your registry.

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