Secure Erase Free Space on Mac Drives with OS El Capitan

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Many Mac users with a modern version of OS X El Capitan have noticed the Secure Erase Free Space feature missing from Disk Utility. What the ‘free space clearing’ feature did (and still does in earlier versions of Mac OS X) was overwriting the free space on a drive to prevent file recovery, adding a layer of security and privacy to file deletion, much like Secure Empty Trash a performed similar function as overwriting data after deletion.

For those wondering, this one features have been removed from the modern version of Disk Utility in Mac OS X because they don’t work on SSD volumes, which are becoming more common and almost all Mac laptops are now shipped with them by default. But not everyone has an SSD drive, which is why some users may want to perform a safe erase free space on their Mac hard drive anyway. To achieve the same secure erase in modern versions of Mac OS X, you need to go to the command line. And yes, this works to clear free space on older versions of Mac OS X too, but since they can do the same job with Disk Utility, it might be a little less relevant to the earlier releases.

This is only for advanced Mac users who are comfortable with backups up their Mac, using the command line with exact syntax, and the concepts behind permanently deleting data. To be clear, this protection only wipes the free space on a drive, with the aim of preventing file recovery attempts, but does not securely erase the entire hard drive as described here.

How to Securely erase free space on Mac OS X El Capitan drives via command line, without disk utility

Back up your Mac before trying to use these commands. The command line requires precise syntax and is brutal. Inappropriate commands can lead to the accidental deletion of data that you do not want to permanently delete as this is a secure erase function. You have been warned, so back up firstup of your Mac data, then proceed at your own risk.

To get started, run the Terminal (found in / Applications / Utilities /) and use the following common syntax, replacing the level and drive name, if applicable:

diskutil secureErase freespace (level 0-4) / Volumes / (Drive Name)

(level 0-4) is a number indicating the number of passes to write to the free space, ‘freespace’ indicates that you are only erasing the free space and not the entire drive itself – a critically important difference – and (Drive Name ) is self-explanatory. Users can also choose the disk ID if desired. If you are unsure of the drive name, using diskutil list will show you all mounted drives and partitions. If the disk in question has a space in its name, you must enclose it in quotes or escape with backslashes.

For example, to perform a secure erase with 35 free space on a disk named “Macintosh HD”, you can use the following command string:

diskutil secureErase freespace 3 “/ Volumes / Macintosh HD”

Pressing return will immediately begin the secure wipe of free space. This is irreversible, so as we’ve mentioned a dozen times, make sure the syntax is exact.

Safely erase free space on Mac hard drive from command line

The manual page entry on diskutil provides the following details about secure erasure feature, detailing the level of free space writing.

secureErase level device Erase, using a secure method, either an entire disk (including all partitions), or just the free space (not in usable files) on a currently mounted volume. If you erase an entire disk, it will remain unusable until it is repartitioned. Clearing free space on a volume keeps it exactly as it was from the end user’s perspective, with the exception that it is not possible to recover deleted files or data using utilities. If you want to wipe all contents of a partition, but not the entire host disk, use the zeroDisk or randomDiskverbs. Ownership of the affected drive is required.

Level must be one of the following:

o 0 – Clear zero fill in one go.

o 1 – Random fill in one pass.

o 2 – US DoD 7-pass secure erase.

o 3 – Gutmann algorithm 35-pass securely erase.

o 4 – US DoE Algorithm 3-Pass Secure Erase.

That’s all there is to it, and that’s how you can proceed to wipe free disk space on a Mac running OS X El Capitan or higher with the new limited Disk Utility. Another option is to use an old version of Disk Utility on modern versions of Mac OS X, either from a startup disk or recovery mode, from an older Mac OS release, or with the application itself, but it generally doesn’t recommended.

And yes, this works on both standard hard drives with spinning platters and modern SSD drives, although with an SSD drive the feature is less relevant because TRIM / garbage collection should handle file deletion itself. For SSD volumes, a better option is to enable and use FileVault disk encryption on the Mac, which encrypts data on the drive making it unrecoverable without the FileVault key, eliminating the need to secure free space. on the volume becomes unnecessary.

Know of any other useful secure data deletion tips or tricks, or some other way to securely erase your free disk space in modern versions of Mac OS X? Let us know in the comments.

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