Can a Virus Really Destroy Your Hard Drive?

Category: Hard-Drives , Hardware

Occasionally, I hear from readers who say a virus 'destroyed' their hard drive and they had to buy a new one. But are there actually viruses that can physically damage a hard drive? Is it even possible for a virus to damage hardware, or is this an urban legend? Read on to find out the truth...

Beware the Horrible, Terrible, Evil, Hard Drive Destructo Virus!

I can't tell you how many times I've heard a reader say "A virus wiped out my hard drive, so I had to buy a new one and re-install everything." When I ask what exactly they mean, the victim sometimes claim that a virus 'fried the electronics,' 'crashed the head,' or otherwise physically damaged the drive. In other cases, people were told by a repair technician that a virus had permanently damaged the hard drive, and they needed to purchase a new one.

My short and simple answer to the question is "no". To the best of my knowledge, no antivirus researcher has ever discovered a virus that causes physical damage to hardware. You can be sure that such a discovery would have made headlines all over the world. It just hasn’t happened.

Hard Drive Virus Damage

People who claim it has happened are wrong, or are being disingenuous. Or it could be what I call "Cousin Vinny Syndrome" -- a modern day version of "I heard it from a friend who knows a guy who lives near the police department in a major city, and he knows about this stuff."

It’s not unheard-of for an unscrupulous repair technician to tell a naïve customer that a virus has “destroyed” a hardware component, usually a hard drive. Then the technician gets to sell the victim a new hard drive, memory stick, motherboard or power supply. They'll also charge for the “service” of re-installing the operating system and apps, in addition to the hours of labor that went into “diagnosing” the bad news. The customer leaves thinking that viruses can damage hardware, and blames viruses for any future hardware problems.

Then there are the amateurs who, upon failing to fix their own hardware, conclude that “it must have been a virus because I couldn’t possibly have done anything wrong.” There are various computer glitches (which may include a virus, a power spike, or just poorly written software) that can wipe out critical sectors of a hard drive. When this happens, you'll be greeted by a startup screen that says "Disk Boot Failure", "No Fixed Disk Found", "Missing Operating System" or some other ominous error message that *seems* to indicate that the hard drive is physically damaged. But in almost every case, it's not really a hardware problem.

See my article Help, My Hard Drive Died! to learn about various tools that can help you recover from these situations. In many cases, you won't even have to re-install Windows or restore files from a backup.

Viruses can and have turned hard drives into seemingly useless bricks. But the only thing they can damage is the data stored there. A virus that overwrites the drive’s boot sector renders it inoperable. But a corrupted boot sector is fixable; only the data written to that sector has been damaged, not the magnetic media that stores the data. Reformat the drive, or reconstruct the boot sector, and the drive will work again. If a virus wipes out files, you can restore from a backup, and you're back in action.

Hard Drives, Head Games and Semantics

Getting back to the original point, is it possible to write a virus that destroys hard drives? A hard drive (like many other PC components) is controlled by embedded chips that contain low-level “microcode.” This microcode can be replaced in what’s called a “flash update.” So why couldn’t a virus replace the legitimate microcode? In a Computer World magazine column published in 2005, columnist Robert Mitchell got a Western Digital VP to admit that it is possible, in theory. Mitchell claimed this admission proves that a virus could “essentially destroy” a drive.

But Mitchell was playing a semantics game. “Essentially” does not mean “physically.” In his context, “destroy” means “render unusable.” A virus could make it impossible for the system’s BIOS to communicate with a drive, but it could not damage the drive’s hardware. If the virus could be flushed out with a new legitimate flash upgrade, the drive would work again. Again, there's no physical damage -- only the DATA on the device is affected. And data can be replaced.

I've also heard about theoretical viruses that write data so frantically to the hard drive, that it just eventually crashes the head or wears out the surface of the drive. I just can't buy this theory, because that virus would have to be running non-stop for months or even years before anything bad happened. I struggled to find an analogy for this, and I thought of the Etch-a-Sketch. Its surface is kind of like a hard drive platter, and the little "pen" you control with the dials is the read/write head. You can scribble all you want, but you're not going to damage the device. And anything you write on the surface of the Etch-a-Sketch screen can be wiped away by shaking it and starting over. That's similar to reformatting a hard drive, which will wipe out the virus and anything that it did.

And then there's the Chernobyl Virus, which appeared in the late 1990s. Some have said that it could cause actual physical damage to the BIOS chip, but that appears to be the stuff of legend and rumor. It might have been able to erase data on a hard drive, or over-write the data on the BIOS, but that's not permanent physical damage. Oh, and I have to mention StuxNet, the virus that targetted computers controlling uranium enrichment equipment in Iran. In this case, the virus tried to affect the functioning of centrifuges and other equipment being controlled by the infected computers. There was no physical damage to the computers, and it's not even clear if the centifuges were damaged.

Let Me Be Perfectly Clear..

I am NOT trying to say that a computer virus can't damage files or destroy data. Of course it can. And 15 or 20 years ago, old-school hackers might have been interested in doing that type of thing. But today, viruses are not created to destroy hardware or data. Viruses are created to steal data and money, to send spam, or to disrupt other users with denial of service attacks. And they're written so as to do their dirty work in secret. Virus creators WANT your hard drive to last a long time, so they can continue to use your computer to do their bidding.

Of course, computer components such as hard drives, motherboards, RAM, graphics cards and power supplies can wear out, or burn out. But those things are caused by defects in manufacturing, poor quality materials, overheating, or power surges. If a computer repair tech tells you a virus caused it, take your computer somewhere else.

If you (or your Cousin Vinny) disagree with my opinion that a virus cannot physically damage a hard drive, please let me know! And please, cite a credible source when you do. Your comments and questions are welcome below...

 
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Most recent comments on "Can a Virus Really Destroy Your Hard Drive?"

(See all 29 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Bob D
11 Oct 2013

Some years ago there were reports of IBM CRT displays catching fire when exercised with a particular sequence of display commands. (Sorry. I cannot find a citation. It's been a while.) I suppose that could happen if the beam was swung from one extreme to the other, i.e. with maximum swings in deflection-coil current. The coils could get warm, but more likely the driving transistors could overheat if they had insufficient current-carrying capacity.

Software can be thoroughly irrational. Some years ago, again, when I tried to install Suse Linux, it corrupted my hard disk so badly I had to re-format.

And hardware can be thoroughly irrational. When my external hard disk failed, I re-formatted, and restored from a backup, only to find I'd been backing up numerous corrupted files. Sixteen null bytes appeared at the beginnings, and sometimes at the ends, of files at random locations. Perhaps careful study would show a pattern, but who has the time?


Posted by:

Kirill
12 Oct 2013

The answer isn't so simple. Modern hard drives have a special zone for writing service information. In case of damage of this zone the hard drive would be completely killed. Some programs like MHDD as I know are capable to work with this info, but the real professional is able to recover this part from scratch. It's not so easy to reach this service info, but theoretically it's possible. This type of damage is equivalent to hardware problem, since there is no info about physical parameters of a drive. As I know, the full access to that zone is possible through special set of contacts or through special equipment, but since MHDD-like programs can work with that too, it's possible for a virus to destroy this info as well. But, of course, there is no universal way to access service zone of any hard drive, so this type of a virus would damage only particular type of hard drives and, possible, even particular version of firmware of such drives. So it's, I think, theoretically possible, but very unlikely due to high complexity and very limited possible damage. I am not a professional in this area, but after some research and experience with badly damaged drives, I came to those conclusions. It happened pretty long ago, so I am not sure if it is not fixed already. But as I am a skeptic, I think, the possibility still can be here.


Posted by:

Burt
12 Oct 2013

Bob,
Thank you for a really brilliant article , so Interesting and very, very, informative to us amateur users .i am very grateful to you for your articles and always wonder how you can think of different subjects as often as you Do.
Thanks again burt


Posted by:

Charles
12 Oct 2013

If a program were to overwrite the flash memory of a device such as a drive, camera, etc. it might also manage to overwrite the "loader" program which allows the device to process updating the flash memory in the first place.

This is "just data" but without the update program in the flash memory, it would be imposible to re-install the device's internal firmtware without unsoldering the flash memory and reprograming it with an external programer. In other words- the manuacturer would likly just throw away the circuit board and start afresh.


Posted by:

TheRube
12 Oct 2013

Hello Mr. Rankin:

To go along with Mr. Burt's comment . . . If I did not know any better I'd think you have a team helping you to produce these fine timely articles but Alas! I know you are a one-man army when it comes to the research and writing.

Mr. Rankin, I do not know how you do it all and you most likely have a full-time job to boot!

Cheers,

TheRube


Posted by:

Richard
12 Oct 2013

My hard drive rotates. So do centrifuges. See Stuxnet


Posted by:

Neil Koven
12 Oct 2013

my previous computer was a 20" iMac. One day it ceased working (all the noises and grinds should have been a clue) so I took it into the local MAC store who (obviously) said I needed a new hard drive, which I bought. But in a fit of optimism, I requested to keep the old one.

I was at the local pro camera store (they have a MAC dept.) and complained to them about my iMac problem. He said to bring the HD in and he'd take a look at it.

I did and he did. He said on that model of HD there is a thin layer of foam in it and it helps retain heat and it subsequently burnt a spot in the circuit board. All the MAC store had to do was transfer the info from the old HD itself to the new HD, since the HD itself was fine. I figured that since the MAC store also does a lot of repairs, they would have a similar HD around. (as I'm typing this, it does not sound logical, so you may have to extrapolate the facts behind it) and they could swap HDs, transfer the data to my new HD and return the borrowed HD to the original one they had in stock.

I realize that this is somewhat difficult to follow, but the upshot is that ALL my original data was now on the new HD I had bought (it was a larger HD) and I did not need to buy a new one...except it was a sale for the MAC store and saved them the trouble of actually examining the old HD.

I hope you can at least follow the basic precepts that I've outlined.

I hope that you and your readers can get from this that because a HD seems to be dead, the info is still there (maybe) but a repair place has to do a little digging and testing and examine the thing completely.

Bob, thanks for all your great comments and info.
Neil Koven


Posted by:

Doc
12 Oct 2013

@TheRube, as hard as it is to believe, now (FINALLY! WHEW!) it's DOCTOR RANKIN -- yes, despite the insatiably of squirrels looking for enough power to levitate their interstellar vehicles (having seen their life-form fail on this planet) he FINALLY got his Ph.D. (it took him long enough though) so now the proper form of address is 'Doctor' though I doubt you'd hear Bob himself say this.

Don't forget that "Ph.D." stands for "Doctor of Philosophy"*, so he is, in essence, a Doctor who corrects the way your moral and ethical views of the Universe are wrong**,and fixes them.

* "Philos" means, in essence, the love of being right. Specifically from _Online Etymological Dictionary "[. . .] directly from Latin philosophia and from Greek philosophia "love of knowledge, pursuit of wisdom [. . . ]" it's clear that he is filled with the love of being right - like all of us. Only he had to spend a lot of money and jump through a LOT of hoops to prove that he can love the same things as passionately as the people who decide if he really does. THEY decided if he is in love with the right knowledge or not. Apparently he agrees enough with the committee and fooled them long enough (part of the 'test') that they gave him the right to think his own thoughts and have them be correct, too.

** 'wrong' simply means doesn't agree with what he KNOWS to be 'true' or is "in essence, True".
---------------------------------------

Thus I prefer Doc, Doc Bob, or mostly plain old 'Bob'. He's earned it in my book. MORE than earned it. Heck I was rooting (no pun intended) when he was a slave in the south toiling away while the nefarious squirrels were trying to jump-start their craft using a main power supply on campus. They failed as I still see them running around what looks to us measly humans as a calm and tranquil campus completely unaware that we ARE in the path of the Vogons and were we aware WE'D be scampering under cars and up trees trying to escape too, right Doctor Bob?


Posted by:

chris
15 Oct 2013

Bob, I not only enjoy your articles but also the thoughtful posts by your readers. So often, reader's posts deteriorate into rants, but this site is far more disciplined. Excellent!


Posted by:

Norton Bison
18 Oct 2013

I am a pro pc tech. I personally have encountered several notebooks infected with a virus that attacks the optical drive, apparently blocking a forced power down by pressing power button while causing the tracking arm to endlessly snap back and forth, making quite a racket, until the optical drive dies. Only way to stop it was pull the power cord and battery.
These have all been in Western Europe 2008-2010.


Posted by:

Callie Jordan
19 Oct 2013

While physical destruction may not be the case, and there are undoubtedly unscrupulous techs whose primary goal is to sell equipment, if a hard drive is rendered unusable by a virus, then to the lay person the disk was destroyed by the virus. I tell my students that it's hard to physically break their computer (unless they drop it), but all too easy to catch something that will make it so someone else will have to fix it for them.


Posted by:

Kayla
07 Dec 2013

In theory, is it possible for a virus or some other detective computer coding to cause a power surge? In other words, is the power supply controlled by feedback from the computer? If so, are there power supplies that have safety feature to prevent this or do you just have to be very careful to select a power supply that meets your computer needs without exceeding it too much?

EDITOR'S NOTE: I think you worry too much. :-)


Posted by:

Blabbermouth
07 Jan 2014

I have heard of viruses being able to "corrupt" ram sticks, making them useless, although i don't know how it can cause physical damage to a ram stick...


Posted by:

lisa g
08 Jan 2014

great article as well as all articles and thanks for the confirmation. I was researching this, I found your article very quickly, read it and now know the exact truth! I like that!
thanks, again!


Posted by:

Gordon L
11 Jan 2014

I agree with your statement given the strict interpretation you impose of the word 'destroy' but as a tech - I have told clients that their hard drive was 'destroyed' by a virus - because it was beyond economic recovery.

If the data is seriously hammered, attempting to restore the data on the drive might require Kroll Labs services or similar and they are not cheap.

If the client has been following recommendations and backing up to an external hard drive on a reasonably regular basis then it's not likely that a trip to Kroll will be considered cost effective by the client. They usually go into sticker shock at that point.

I have seen a drive with a virus be unable to be repartitioned and reformatted - for a reinstall.

Could be hardware failure - could have been that the firmware was overwritten/corrupted - but who cares? At some point it's cheaper to install a new (frequently better/larger) hard drive than to purchase more of my time, even at my relatively friendly $45 an hour labor rate, attempting heroic measures to recover a 2+ year old hard drive worth maybe $35 doesn't make sense.

If I can't 'mostly' have it fixed in an hour - time to perform triage here - replace the drive, restore from back up, run AV on that, clean if need be - and be done with it.

Effort at fixing old drive would include booting to CD and doing a scan and clean, repairing boot sector (or attempting to), running a hard drive utility software or two to fix the fat if indicated. If that doesn't result in a bootable drive that seems stable enough to do a restore from backup, then as far as I am concerned, that drive has been destroyed; it is beyond economic recovery.

For $100 these days, you can get a fairly awesome new hard drive. Add no more than 2 to 3 hours labor and you can be good to go. Or you can spend 4 hours or more on labor and THEN realize what beyond economic recovery means, when you hear your tech say, I don't know how much longer this is going to take - there is something not right about the way the drive is acting.

I can take it back to my shop and see if I can do a firmware update/overwrite - but we are looking at over $300 in service labor before it will be up and running and it's possible you will still need to replace the drive.

Not doing a client any favor by having him potentially be on the hook for $400 or more when he could have had an improved/upgraded computer performance and be back up and running for $225 out the door.

Of course - if there is no backup and the contents of the drive include irreplaceable data - Houston we have a problem. That's what has kept Kroll in business all these years.


Posted by:

Art Frailey
17 Jan 2014

I think Bob made a good article on this subject. And with what I know about the internal operation of computers, I would not in any way disagree with him.
But, I have to say, that Gordon L. made some very good points as well. However, I think he should explain to a customer, just like he did to us. Most people would understand it is beyond repair, just like a highly damaged transmission in a car. It may very well be economically prohibitive to repair. Don't lie to them, Gordon, just tell them the truth, like you explained to us.


Posted by:

mike kim
17 Mar 2014

I have been hacked almost three years. I am senior and started computer design. I spent all day every month and year because of this hacker hidden hidrance. I could not report police because no physical or certain proof. It seems there is no law to control this coward dirty behavior. This hacker only tarket usb connections. I have more than 10 flash sticks broken and useless. I have four harddisks unable to read and write in sector. They all new in new labtop. One of them is Toshibar. The hacker stays all day home or somewhere see what I am doing. Most of virus are Trash-500, 999, 1000. Thre is no solution using anti virus program such as norton, avg etc due to the hacker plant in dll in the meantime of installation or downloads.
Nowadays, repair shops are prosperous owing to innocent victims. Dont think virus or program not to damage whole. The virus is a program as much as one giga or two giga conntaining all system itself. Please advice me your opinion.


Posted by:

darlec
19 Apr 2014

The problem with the article above is that it does not tell readers that some viruses are written to change drive data that is read by the operating system. Some viruses have become very adept at hiding themselves, making copies of them selves etc, and one trick they use is to change the drive's parameters in order to fool the operating system. Many stealth viruses exist which do this. There are also malicious viruslike programs that will corrupt a drive by attempting to change sduch parameters and hide viruses. Hard drives cannot physically be destroyed by viruses but sometimes they do damage the drive geometry data and other parameters to such an extent the drive may as well be physically damaged, until it is completely reformatted, and possibly given a low level format


Posted by:

Jouni "rautamiekka" Järvinen
03 Jun 2014

Then how would using DC++ back in Window$ ME days kill 2 hard drives beyond any later usage, and none were killed after quitting ? I certainly don't believe this article is right from long and varying experience.


Posted by:

Ralph
05 Jun 2014

Well hard drive failure and viruses can be linked in one way, and that is user neglect and error.
Plus honestly its still good to get more then one hard drive for d4esktops and external drives for non desktops, backups should be encouraged often.


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