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How to ensure sensitive Windows files are really deleted
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Tech tips

Window’s tool to wipe out your data leaves some behind – Here’s how to fix it

Nobody’s perfect, and we all make mistakes. Ever accidentally sent an email before you finished writing it or spilled coffee on your keyboard? You’re not alone.

What happens when you accidentally delete a file? It may end up in your computer’s digital trash can, but that’s not always the case. Don’t panic. There are a few ways to recover deleted files. Tap or click here to learn how.

Of course, there are times when deleted data should stay deleted, such as when you sell or pass on your PC. It’s imperative that you’ve entirely erased a device in any case. Windows 10 and 11 have a built-in data wiping tool, but it is leaving some stuff behind.

Remove everything?

When you want to reset your Windows PC to factory specs, you can choose to keep your files, keep your preinstalled apps, or keep nothing.

In Windows 10, go to Settings > Update & Security > Recovery, then click on Reset this PC under Get started.

In Windows 11, go to Settings > System > Recovery, then click on Reset PC under Reset this PC.

In either case, there’s an option to Remove everything. This should remove your files, apps and drivers, changes you made to settings, and any apps your PC manufacturer installed.

It turns out that Remove everything doesn’t necessarily do that.

RELATED: Tech tip: How to unsend an email before it goes through

Some data is left behind

Microsoft MVP (Most Valuable Professional) Rudy Ooms recently blogged that Microsoft’s built-in data wiping tools are not performing as expected.

Rudy found that readable user data could still be found in the Windows.old folder, whether he was doing a remote wipe or a local wipe. This happened when locally or remotely wiping PCs running Windows 10 version 21H2 and Windows 11 version 21H2.

On top of this, files encrypted with Microsoft’s BitLocker were found unencrypted in the Windows.old folder. And OneDrive files that had been marked Always Keep on this device were also found there.

What you can do

While there is no official fix, you can find and manually delete the Windows.old files. You may notice a Windows.old folder when upgrading from one version of Windows to another. It contains files from your previous version of Windows in case you want to roll things back.

If you’ve recently upgraded your Windows, make sure it is working correctly before making any changes to the Windows.old folder.

You can usually find the folder in the drive where Windows is installed. For example, C:\Windows.old. You can open it to view the files or delete the folder as you would with any Windows file. You may need administrator privileges to do so.

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