Getting rid of a computer? Be careful!

September 1, 2006

Technology Consult

It's a common sight in medical offices and businesses in general-the hall closet stacked with dusty, retired computers. Given useful life spans of only two or three years, computers come and go faster than Hollywood starlets. An estimated 70 million became obsolete in 2003, according to the National Safety Council.

For physicians, old computers also pose a potential HIPAA hazard. Before you get rid of a machine, you've got to remove any patient information stored on its hard drive. So minding your Ps and Qs is imperative.

Computer disposal is simplified if you lease your machines and return them at the end of the term or upgrade in midstream to newer equipment. The leasing company takes the computers off your hands and assumes responsibility for complying with state and local environmental regulations.

But even here, there remains the prickly issue of ridding the computers of patient data. Merely deleting these files from the hard drive isn't good enough, because an enterprising identity thief can easily recover them. A reasonable solution is a "data wiping" program based on US Department of Defense standards. The leasing company may offer to run this software on your computer, but HIPAA vigilance dictates that you should do it yourself, says computer consultant Rosemarie Nelson in Syracuse, NY. Type "data wiping software" into the Google search engine to find free or inexpensive programs.

If you purchased your computers outright, the manufacturer may streamline disposal. When a business buys a desktop from Dell, for instance, it can pay an extra $15 per component (notebook, desktop CPU, monitor, or printer) for Dell to get rid of the equipment down the line. For $25 per component, Dell also will dispose of computers, regardless of brand, that a business customer is replacing right now. If the old computer is resold, Dell will wipe the hard drive if you haven't already, and the business will receive 90 percent of the proceeds.

Don't assume a charity will want your computer

The altruist in you may think about donating old IT equipment to a hard-pressed charity. That's fine, provided what you're giving away is less than five years old, says Rosemarie Nelson. "It's hard to find a charity that wants an ancient PC that's too slow for surfing the Internet."

But if you have unwanted machines with enough memory, speed, and hard-drive space for operating in today's e-world, there are several organizations, such as Share the Technology ( http://www.sharetechnology.org), that will connect you to a needy cause. You can find a list of such middlemen at the EPA's website for recycling consumer electronic equipment ( http://www.epa.gov/e-cycling).

Again, before you donate your computer, you'll need to treat the hard drive with a data wiping program. And be sure to uninstall all application programs-Adobe PhotoShop, for example-that you reinstall on a replacement computer. "Otherwise, you're guilty of software piracy," says Nelson.