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Ever found anything odd on a used computer?

SiliconClassics

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Like many of you, I occasionally come across a used computer whose owner neglected to erase personal files from the hard drive. Usually there's not much of interest on it - a few photos of family, some correspondence in Word documents, etc. And usually I end up erasing and reformatting the entire drive as part of an OS reinstall.

But yesterday I bought a PowerBook 280C for $10 from a girl in Manhattan. She claims it was her father's, and that it hadn't worked for years - even with the power adapter plugged in, it refused to boot, though the green power LED did illuminate.

Well, after I got it home, I simply yanked the main battery and this little PB fired right up! It booted to MacOS 7.5 and it's a veritable time capsule, full of files and apps dating back to 1996. There are quite a few Internet utilities installled - web browsers, PPP, newsgroup readers, etc. The owner appears to have been quite tech-savvy, and his e-mails and docs reveal that he worked for a trading firm on Wall St. There are also a few personal SimpleText documents on the desktop, which appear to be awkwardly-written "end of romance" letters from his less than articulate ex-girlfriend.

But the most interesting find was in an innocuous desktop folder called "binaries." It contains a couple hundred porno jpg files, each of which takes about 30 seconds to decompress, color-convert, and display using JPEGview. Ah, the good old days, downloading low-res JPEG images one at a time with an unreliable 28.8k modem, and oogling them on a 256-color screen! Most of the smut is pretty mundane, but I stumbled upon one odd GIF that was a black and white closeup of a horse's ass. Yes, literally. Ha! I cracked up for a good minute after seeing that one.

Of course, for privacy purposes, I will keep the owner's identity confidential, and I'll erase all his personal files eventually. Anyone else ever come face-to-face with a stranger's personal foibles via their old computer?
 
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NobodyIsHere

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Hi! I recommend you reformat that drive ASAP and eliminate and residual traces of the former owner. People will not be willing to give away old computers if they get the idea that vintage computer hobbyists are going "air their dirty laundry" in public. I am sure that many if not most of us have uncovered "interesting" data left over on hard drives. My policy is to wipe the drives clean and then reuse them. It is a service to the original owner to protect their data in exchange for using the old hardware.

Please, do the person a favor and wipe the drive. Certainly don't make a public case of exploiting someone's leftover data.

Thanks and have a nice day!

Andrew Lynch
 

linuxlove

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I haven't found anything that bad but I have found plenty of old business documents and credit card numbers and things like that. Yes I formatted the hard drive...
 

Chuck(G)

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One one machine I was given, I found the records of the state dental association on the hard drive; complete with membership list, status, home addresses, etc. It was an old 8-bit machine that required a boot diskette, which I just happened to have.

I dutifully erased it.
 

Unknown_K

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One of my old Pentium 1 Thinkpads had somebodies Quicken acount with personal information. My first IIfx was from a College and had the professors resume and some research papers in it. Every time I get a machine I browse it looking for drivers (incase they are hard to find on the net) or rare apps (for the serial # incase I reinstall them), after that the drive gets wiped and I install a fresh OS and whatever apps I feel like playing with. Digging through peoples files is not something I like to do, and I agree if too many stories get out about people talking about what they find everybody will eventually smash the HDs with a hammer before they give machines away or just junk them.
 

kishy

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I've found something that creeped me out to the MAX, actually. Used hard drive, 200-something megabyte WD. In a box by the side of the road (cardboard box that is).

Occupying the entire capacity of the drive were copies of files that had been on my then-computer. I was maybe 15? Being honest with you folks: pr0n (attempting to obfuscate for the sake of Google results, I guess), games, and whatever crap I had in My Documents.

No, I did not make a mistake and confuse it with one of the drives I already had. I had never seen the drive before that discovery, and it disturbed me VERY much to find it. If anyone can offer an explanation of how this happened be my guest.
 

kvanderlaag

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Vancouver, BC, Canada
Kishy: That's hilarious. Do you have your tinfoil hat?

I've received a few computers from people that have still had personal documents and things left on them - I don't think it's unreasonable to look through a machine's hard drive for drivers and applications that can be saved, and personally, I find some entertainment in seeing what other people used a (now) outdated computer for, but I think it is absolutely unacceptable to EVER keep a copy of any personal files or documents. Software gets saved, then the hard drive gets wiped, end of story.

Sometimes it does make a funny story, yes, especially if you can piece together how it happened. Never would those stories be shared with names or specifics - only in general terms, and only after the hard drive has been wiped. Think about it - do you tell stories to your friends about weird people you've had to deal with at work? People who were particularly obstinate? I think those situations are pretty similar. The story can be good and entertaining, but what do you gain from using specific names and places? That just upsets people and there's no reason for that.

And of course it goes without saying, if you find banking information or anything of a more sensitive personal nature, destroy it.
 

Ksarul

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The responses on this thread are one of the major reasons I like this place. Vintage computer folk almost instantly come to the conclusion that they need to take the correct action to protect the clueless former owners of a device filled with personal data from their own mistakes--and that is a very good thing. More importantly, wiping the drive protects you too--because if even one of the old files on there contains illegal underage content, it becomes a nightmare for you just for having it in your possession (in the US).
 

glitch

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I've found a few machines from the state surplus auction that still had intact hard drives -- usually, they remove them and drill the drive, then sell a box of drilled drives at some later time. I've found that if the machine is exceptionally hard to get in to, or if it's got two hard drives, they will sometimes fail to find one. Usually they just contain the operating system, applications and maybe some mundane documents/e-mails from whoever used it.

One of the machines I'd gotten, a beige G3 desktop, still had its primary drive, but it'd been disconnected and replaced with a bigger drive (which had been removed). I reconnected it and found a ton of medical data having to do with some drug trial. The actual data only matched results to a subject ID #, but there was also an Excel document matching names to numbers with contact information. It ended up being plugged into my desktop and having DBAN run against it. I guess that's sort of the worst-case of what can happen when they don't do a good job at removing drives/data!

I buy most of my floppy disks used, so I get quite a bit of stuff with personal data on it. If it's not an application, drivers or something non-personal, it gets ran through the degaussing ring immediately. As per the Classic Computer Collector's Code of Conduct:

I will return or destroy any personal or commercially sensitive data I find on a machine I acquire, and will keep it in the strictest confidence, should I find it necessary to view it.
 

Bobthearch

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Kishy's story is very odd. I don't have anything to compare to that...

Often I work on computers for friends and family, or end up with their old machines that I restore and give away. I often find pictures and files, which I copy to a CD for them before reformatting the drive for a fresh install.

It's the garage sale machines that often have personal/private stuff. For instance, one garage sale computer had a list of the previous owner's files including letters, tax records, photos, and a spreadsheet of credit card and bank account numbers! First off, who would keep that on a computer? Second, who would leave it there and forget about it? I reformatted the drive, reinstalled a fresh OS and drivers, and gave the computer away.
 

MikeS

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Keep in mind that if you don't wipe the drive completely (not just reformat or delete files) and someone subsequently finds child porn on it then you may be in serious trouble even if you knew nothing about it.

Also be aware that if someone brings you a computer to repair, clean malware, upgrade, whatever, and you run across some child porn files then in many jurisdictions you are required to report it to the police (even if it's your buddy or uncle Harry), and can again be in serious trouble if it's discovered that you didn't.

http://www.informationweek.com/news/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=6505825

That can be particularly tricky because the owner of the computer may not even be responsible or even aware that those files exist.

http://www.thefreelibrary.com/AP+IMPACT:+Framed+for+child+porn+_+by+a+PC+virus-a01612052454
 

Unknown_K

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Some people figure if they can't get on their machines (hardware/software/power issues) then their data is gone. The thinkpad with all the quicken information (bank acount numbers, etc) had a power plug that needed resoldered for the machine to work, so they figured the machine and their data was dead?

Oh and I forgot one other interesting find. A local lawyer who gave me a bunch of old mac gear gave me an Athlon XP2000+ system a few years back, he had forgotten 2 HDs in the unit and that held all his current work files and older files going back years (he had just setup a new machine in the office). Ofcourse I handed his drives back after I emailed him about it (he was very nervous about them, thaught they were removed).
 

SiliconClassics

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It's unsettling how careless lawyers and doctors can be. A couple of years ago I purchased an SGI O2 that had apparently been used for MRI scans in a Long Island hospital. Not only did it contain a very cool volumetric 3D-visualization program for viewing the MRI scans, but it had actual scan data from about a dozen patients, along with records containing their names and contact information. It really was quite interesting to tumble through somebody's upper torso, but of course I ended up completely wiping the drive and reinstalling IRIX.

I've received other O2s that were used for TV weather graphics, but unfortunately software like WeatherProducer requires a very particular network configuration to download realtime data and is more or less useless outside the television studio.
 

cosam

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Some people figure if they can't get on their machines (hardware/software/power issues) then their data is gone.
I think that's a pretty common misconception and it's up to people like us to educate others as to why this isn't the case. Many people also have no idea what supposedly mundane information is worth, especially if it should fall into the wrong hands.

I generally have a quick scan through any second-hand media I get for interesting software, etc. but I don't go rooting through what you could most globally refer to as "user data". If I happen to stumble upon anything of a sensitive nature, I inform the previous owner (if I know who that is) and check they don't want any of it before I wipe the disk.

I'm not about to jump in editing posts here, but the OP may like to consider sanitising the information a little more thoroughly. As unlikely as it may seem, if anyone familiar with the particular machine in question should come across this thread, there's more than enough detail there to cause embarrassment. The details don't add to the story anyway, and in this kind of situation it's usually best to err on the side of caution...
 

BuggZ

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Quite a few years ago I purchased a lot of old computers at an auction. When I started checking the machines I found documents on one drive marked "Confidential" at the top and bottom of the documents. When I notified the appropriate office they confiscated all the hard drives to investigate the problem. I didn't get any of the drives back for more than a year and then they had been damaged to the point that none of them were useable.

On another computer I purchased at a surplus sale, I found information from a sales office that had client names and credit information. I called the office that the computer had come from and they asked if I would return the hard drive. When I took the hard drive to the office they insisted on giving me $50 for returning it. I only paid $40 for the computer so I cam out ahead on that deal.

The strangest thing though is while working in a retail electronics store, I often had to check returned computer items like external hard drives. It amazed me what people would leave on a working hard drive that they returned for a refund. We always had to run a wipe program and usually ended up destroying the hard drives anyway to prevent any information from being compromised.
 

kishy

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Kishy: That's hilarious. Do you have your tinfoil hat?

I've received a few computers from people that have still had personal documents and things left on them - I don't think it's unreasonable to look through a machine's hard drive for drivers and applications that can be saved, and personally, I find some entertainment in seeing what other people used a (now) outdated computer for, but I think it is absolutely unacceptable to EVER keep a copy of any personal files or documents. Software gets saved, then the hard drive gets wiped, end of story.

Sometimes it does make a funny story, yes, especially if you can piece together how it happened. Never would those stories be shared with names or specifics - only in general terms, and only after the hard drive has been wiped. Think about it - do you tell stories to your friends about weird people you've had to deal with at work? People who were particularly obstinate? I think those situations are pretty similar. The story can be good and entertaining, but what do you gain from using specific names and places? That just upsets people and there's no reason for that.

And of course it goes without saying, if you find banking information or anything of a more sensitive personal nature, destroy it.

Tinfoil hat? I have ever since...

It's not like I had trashed the then-computer, it was still at home. My internet connection was dial up and while I was on daily, it was never for long, so it's not particularly easy to take someone's files over that connection.

It was a pre-USB computer, so nobody broke in and filled up a flash drive.

I'm still greatly troubled by how that happened.

Consequently, every drive I've parted ways with since has been 7-pass shredded with KillDisk, partitioned and formatted a few times before and after the shreds. Events like that can do this to a person...
 

MikeS

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Tinfoil hat? I have ever since...
<snip>
Consequently, every drive I've parted ways with since has been 7-pass shredded with KillDisk, partitioned and formatted a few times before and after the shreds. Events like that can do this to a person...
Hmmm.. on second thought maybe you should take off the tinfoil hat...

Mind you, it was MLB spying on Bart Simpson after all...
 

Raven

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I found a directory of airforce officer data for the local base on some 5.25" disks, contact information, probably-outdated ranks, etc.. I rooted through it just to check out the program it was in, and then wiped the disk. That's pretty much the only interesting thing I've ever found.

Oh, and there were some airforce programs for tests, flight logs, and other neat things. I still have those, as they had no data in them - amusing. :)
 

NeXT

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I found a DUO dock whose internal hard drive contained some useful software (MacTerminal) and stuff like excel spreadsheets and such but the majority of he files were located on a remote server that probably went out of use ten years ago.
All this talk about formatting your hard drives and tinfoil hat government-level formatting conspiracies are starting to drive me nuts and of all people, it's coming from the vintage computer field.
We have enough trouble sourcing era hard disks and valueable software to run some of the more specialized computers. You check it, you format it, you go on with your life and don't complain.
 

MikeS

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Anybody reading this thread is going to make darn sure that he totally destroys any hard disks or diskettes, no matter how rare they or any software or drivers may be...
 
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