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What is a Computer Wipe?

By Brad Cole
Updated May 16, 2024
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A computer wipe is when a vital, writable component of a computer system has been damaged or erased. This can either be intentional by the user or unintentional. The end result of a computer wipe in either case is the same: the correct data must be copied onto the system before the computer will work again.

An unintentional computer wipe is not uncommon, and can be caused by either user error or a computer virus. With user error, a file vital to running the computer such as an operating system file is deleted. The deleted file causes the computer to no longer boot up. This type of computer wipe can usually be repaired by a professional or through the use of a rescue disk, and much of the data stored on the computer may be recoverable.

More significant damage may occur if a computer virus causes the wipe. Depending on how malignant the computer virus is, either small file changes that result in the disabling of the computer may occur or massive portions of data could be deleted. Damage caused by a virus usually requires that an antivirus tool or a malignant software removal kit be run on the system before new data can be safely copied over.

An intentional computer wipe occurs when data that is required to run the computer is purposely deleted. There can be many reasons for a computer wipe: deleting all of the information on the hard drive and re-installing the operating system can make systems compromised by spyware run faster; wiping and re-installing can allow new operating system components to run more smoothly; and deleting information from a computer can safeguard privacy if the computer changes owners.

Most computer wipes focus on information on a computer’s hard drive, and can be either simple or detailed. Simple wipes only remove the pointers to the data on the drive; the information is still there, but it can not be accessed through basic commands. Programs can be used to partially or completely recover data that has been wiped in this way. With a detailed wipe, a series of zeroes and ones is written over the data. Recovering data that has been wiped in this way is considered extremely difficult if not impossible.

While hard drives are the most common part of a computer that can be wiped, they are not the only part. The motherboard, for instance, often contains data that is considered secure but that is not completely read-only. Wiping this data would result in a computer shutting down, but all of the information on the hard drive would still be recoverable.

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Discussion Comments
By anon58137 — On Dec 30, 2009

if your hard drive is not good and you want to format it, can it send you an error code 4?

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