Before the company will recycle an old computer, Best Buy's policy says that the hard drive has to be removed. While it is prudent to make sure that there is no data on a machine destined for a recycler, there are ways to accomplish this without removing the drive completely.
On the February 15, 2009, Best Buy started accepting recyclable electronics at all of its store locations in the U.S. In many cases, there is no cost associated with the recycling service. The exceptions to this are CRT and LCD displays and laptops. Recycling those pieces of equipment will cost $10US, but Best Buy will offset that fee by giving customers a $10 Best Buy gift card.
While I wouldn't consider myself an ardent environmentalist, I believe in taking advantage of any reasonable means of lessening my impact. Computer equipment contains harmful chemicals, and it should be disposed of safely. I appreciate Best Buy's new program because the most effective way to have the public start taking responsibility for recycling their electronics is by making such services readily accessible.
There was one passage in the terms and conditions for the new program that surprised me, however. That was the passage that stated that Best Buy wouldn't accept any equipment that might contain personal data. From the company's F.A.Q. (the italics are my emphasis):
What happens to customer data included on a recycled product?
Best Buy stores will not take possession of customers' personal data -- this includes camera and computer discs/CDs/DVDs, hard drives from laptops or desktop PCs, or any other device that could contain customer information. In the case of hard drives on laptops or desktop PCs, customers will be asked to remove the hard drive themselves, or they can pay a Geek Squad agent to remove the hard drive before handing the PC over to be recycled. For an explanation on how to Do-it-Yourself, see this video from Geek Squad. Under no circumstances shall Best Buy be liable for any loss of any data or media from products delivered to us for recycling.
I understand the disclaimer that Best Buy has attached to their program, which absolves them from responsibility for data loss. That's standard corporate practice. I'm a bit surprised at their insistence that the hard drives be removed completely. Maybe it's an effort to throw some business to the Geek Squad, because there are plenty of ways that software can be used to confidently erase a drive. Besides, there are plenty of charities that try to find worthwhile applications for unwanted PCs with needy individuals and organizations. They would be happy to have a gently used hard drive to refurbish.
If you're recycling computer equipment for the clients you support — through Best Buy or anyone else — it's easy enough to make sure the drives are cleaned of any data. Check out Darik's Boot and Nuke for a free boot disk that will erase hard disks up to the standards of the U.S. Department of Defense. Mac users who have problems with DBAN can boot off of their system software DVD and use the Secure Erase feature of Apple's Disk Utility application to DOD wipe their hard drives. (If an application can make seven passes that completely overwrite the drive's data, that is generally considered secure.)
For a laugh, check out the Do-It-Yourself video on data protection that Best Buy had the Geek Squad put together. Certainly, anyone who watches that instructional video will be able to successfully destroy a hard drive. They may also have to contend with injury if they employ the unsafe drill-handling practices demonstrated. Save yourself from laceration...let software destroy your data.