How to Destroy a Hard Drive

Category: Hard-Drives

I'm getting rid of an old computer, and I want to make sure the data on the hard drive can't be be accessed. What's the best way to destroy a hard drive and all the data on it?

Hard Drive Destruction

Sounds like a low-budget movie made for geeks, but the topic is serious. When you plan to get rid of an old hard drive, you really should render it totally inoperable. Tossing a hard drive in the trash, even after reformatting it, can expose all your sensitive data to a clever person, and make you easy prey for identity thieves.

In most cases, using special software designed to completely erase the data on a hard drive is sufficient. See my related article Completely Erase a Hard Drive for some tips on doing that. But no matter how many times you reformat, repartition, or overwrite every sector on a hard drive, it may still be possible to recover data from it - if the drive's magnetic platters will spin. So to destroy a hard drive with complete certainty you need to destroy the platters. There are right ways and downright dangerous ways to destroy a hard drive.

How to Destroy a Hard Drive

Subjecting the hard drive to a powerful magnetic field will not do the trick; that doesn't bend the platters out of shape, it just obscures the data. Nor does microwaving a hard drive do any good. (Microwaving does work on plastic CDs and DVDs by melting the tiny pits that encode data.) "Death by fire" is a dangerous method; there are many toxic chemicals in a hard drive that you don't want to inhale.

Brute Force and Other Methods

Keep things simple whenever possible. Your goal is to render the hard drive's platters unreadable. Primitive brute force is the obvious and richly satisfying solution. Drive nails through the hard drive. Drill holes through it. Both of these techniques will make it impossible for a read/write head to hover over the platters without crashing. A sledgehammer applied vigorously until the hard drive is no longer flat also works. Of course all of these methods require some safety equipment and adult supervision.

But amazingly, data can still be recovered from the unpierced and unbent portions of platters. An even more complete technique for destroying a hard drive is to disassemble it; remove the platters, and sand or grind their surfaces with power tools. Acid can destroy the surface of platters, too, but you run the risk of burning yourself and inhaling damaging fumes. Muriatic acid, sold at home improvement stores, is strong enough to do the job on a hard drive.

You may have to buy or borrow a set of Torx wrenches to remove the special screws used to seal a hard drive's case. Before spending that money, try prying the case off with a large, flat-head screwdriver or chisel. Encasing a hard drive in cement, plaster of Paris, or clear acrylic is another way to ensure its platters are inoperable. A clear acrylic tomb also makes an interesting paperweight! Explosives are sometimes used to destroy a hard drive. YouTube can provide examples of such techniques, all of which are prohibited by local and federal laws.

The safest way to destroy a hard drive is to send it to a facility that has heavy-duty metal shredding machines. Do a Google search for "hard drive shredding" and you'll find quite a few companies that will do the job. You may find that watching this video of a hard drive shredder almost as satisfying as doing it yourself.

It's tempting to recycle hard drives by donating them to charities, schools, friends, and other people in need. But remember that a hard drive may contain data you've completely forgotten about yet would be horrified to have someone else discover. It's unlikely that your neighbor or a middle school student has the savvy to recover data from a thoroughly "wiped" hard drive. But you don't know where that drive will end up; it might find its way to the National Security Agency somehow. So the safest way to dispose of an unwanted hard drive is to destroy it completely.

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Posted by on 30 Aug 2010


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Most recent comments on "How to Destroy a Hard Drive"

(See all 24 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Bev C
31 Aug 2010

Thanks for the laughs along with advice. Reading your article on disposing of a hard drive I could just see the "safety" nuts going nuts. I could nearly "see" you grinning while writing some of it and enjoyed with you.

Seriously, it doesn't pay to get too rabid over the possibilities - government agencies and big business leak most of what we'd like to protect without any help from us.


Posted by:

Mike
31 Aug 2010

Two tips: hard drives are like little records(I'm talking about LPs from the stone age)so you can freeze the disks after you take the hard drive apart and crack them like taffy with a hammer.2 Boll the disks till they are completely pliable and wearing gloves twist into pretzels.Combine both boil and twist: freeze and crack,if you're real nervous and about your info!


Posted by:

Pierre
31 Aug 2010

Would not merely painting it with an epoxy type (waterproof) paint, or an acrylic type paint (eg: nail polish is a cheap acrylic type) do the job?

1) The heads cannot read through a couple of coats of paint.
2) If the paint is bumpy (like the sandy paint used to paint around swimming pools) the heads hit the paint and crash.
3) If they try remove the paint.... they ruin the read heads or the platters.....

And a "Dremmel" tool can make quick nasty little scratches on the platters, if you are wearing safety glasses...

Then too, this next method ALWAYS works:
Mail your hard drive, along with $10, and 2 Snickers bars to:
Bob Rankin.....
... and let him have some fun.
it almost sounds like a Robert Ludlum novel.
"The Rankin Drive"
A new 3D movie, coming in the fall of 2010.
(Contact me for the plot, rob!)


Posted by:

Lany Smith
31 Aug 2010

I dismantle the hard drive, taking it apart as much as possible. I save the screws and any other parts I might be able to use later. Then I take the platters and make wind chimes out of them. I have also used the platters and a few other parts to make deco art for my computer room walls. (Makes a great conversation piece.) The boards and anything else I don't want gets tossed in a box and given to the local computer recycler.
I also know of some jewelry designers who would probably love to get old drive boards (and other drive/computer parts) to make earrings or pendants from.


Posted by:

Joop
31 Aug 2010

I remove HDisk, take it down to shoreline, go on a long pier out into the water and drop it; Abot 20 mtrs deep. Done occaisonally and who knows what in 1oo yrs?


Posted by:

tuffsheet
31 Aug 2010

I'm with Bev C and Pierre on this one! 95% of people who replaces a hard drive shouldn't worry too much about their info unless they are CEO's of major corporations. First of all....How would somebody know WHEN you are getting rid of a H/D? and secondly...It is a precision piece of equipment, backing over it with the rear tires of your car would pretty much disable it! Now lets discuss something that applies to us common folks and not those who work for DOD, FBI, CIA, DEA,etc.


Posted by:

Nellie Bandelier
31 Aug 2010

Now I know why I have so many old, old computers stored in the basement. Just read above that some jewelry designers might use some parts; I do mosaics, maybe I should cut them up and use them!!

I'm glad I decided to post since I just now found below where I could post a question. I always wondered how to ask one each time you suggest posting questions to you!!
Nellie


Posted by:

Ted P
31 Aug 2010

You may hammer, boil, burn, warp, acidify, grind, drill or feed them to Kirstie Alley and there will still be the remote possibility that traces of your blowfish-encrypted penis photos can be recovered from the remaining shreds of platter. There is really only one way to eliminate all the traces from this universe. Send them into the galactic black hole (or a nearby smaller one.) Since this is highly impractical at the current epoch, the next preferable method would be to send them in a rocket to the center of the sun. Unfortunately, the supply of space vehicles is rather limited and cost-prohibitive at this time. The next two best methods would have to be terrestrial in execution: 1. Exploding a low-yield tactical thermo-nuclear device in a vacant culvert outside of town or, 2. Disposal in an active volcanic caldera. However, keep in mind the last two methods are not foolproof.


Posted by:

Paul VdB
31 Aug 2010

Maybe a good subject for "Myth Busters" ...


Posted by:

gcai
01 Sep 2010

Do I sense a degree of paranoia?
Do the super erase (see http://eraser.heidi.ie/) and if you feel that is not enough a sledge hammer will feel real good. Or an angle grinder with a metal cutting blade 2 passes and your HD is toast - could make an interesting paperweight :-)


Posted by:

Ericthecmh
02 Sep 2010

Just curious, but if you reformat your hard drive by setting every bit to for example, 0, how would a hacker recover the data previously on the hard drive?


Posted by:

denedg
03 Sep 2010

Another possibility is to run KILLDISK. That will wipe the hard drive clean, especially after 2-3 passes for most people.


Posted by:

Larry
08 Sep 2010

I disassemble the drives, and make "High-Tech" wind chimes from platters of various sizes, using high-test fishing like. (ca. 20 lb. test or greater.) After a few months in the elements,there's little chance anyone would even try to recover data from such disks that had been already "wiped." Using a hammer to break the platters into parts is usually pretty effective, with the help of a bench vise and eye protection.


Posted by:

Laurie
08 Sep 2010

I have a friend with a car-smasher (he picks up abandoned automobiles for the county, removes anything usable and flattens the rest for metal recyclers.) When I had a pc to get rid of, he put it in the back seat of a car that was going to be flattened and that took care of it. A local junk yard might be able to do the deed also.


Posted by:

Mike
08 Sep 2010

I had an XP computer die. I no longer had the recovery disc to restore it, XP was no longer sold, and the cost of any that I might find was almost as much as replacing the whole computer. And I sure wasn't going through all the trouble to hook up a tiny 35Gb drive to a new computer just to erase it. A cheap sledge hammer, or the back tire of my pickup, was sufficient to destroy whatever personal data MIGHT have been valuable. Sure, maybe the CIA is able to recover traces of some data, but why would they? For ID thieves, the cost/benefit ratio, not to mention sheer time, is WAY out of their realm.


Posted by:

Walter
09 Sep 2010

I just use the linux utility shred to clean up a hard drive. It write random or sequences over all the information several times. Just boot Knopix and run it. The last time through it can write straight zeros so that it looks like it was simply wiped. Even the NSA would have trouble with a nicely shredded hard drive.


Posted by:

Zammy
09 Sep 2010

What about soaking it in a bucket of very salty water, then letting it dry and corrode?


Posted by:

Art
09 Sep 2010

I use the built-into the drive HDD Erase method as I've been given to understand that this does a super job. Supposedly it's so good that not even CIA or NSA can recover anything. Is that incorrect?

EDITOR'S NOTE: From what I've read, if the media is still intact, there's a chance that any erased data can still be recovered. How much effort that requires, and whether anyone might be motivated to do so is probably a more important consideration.


Posted by:

Lee McIntyre
01 Oct 2010

I'm looking at drive-shredding services. One I found online quoted $5.00. "Just send us your drive and we will shred it. Promise." What assurances should I ask for to know they are legit?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Are they members of NAID? Do they provide any certifications?


Posted by:

Jerry in Detroit
02 Oct 2010

The point is that the hard drive platter must be physically destroyed to be sure the data cannot be recovered. Crushing will not do it. Caustic chemicals might work eventually but platters are typically made of stainless steel and are quite resistant to corrosion. Shredding is the gold standard.

While the NSA certifies erasure software, they do not use it themselves. Government agencies typically buy their own shredders. Shredders are not cheap. Hard drive shredding machines start in the 5 figure range and go up from there. No offense but $5 sounds suspiciously low; You would have to shred hundreds of hard drives a month just to pay the loan. If you do elect to use this service, be sure to break the circuit card on the hard drive before sending it out.

I checked into NAID but the $600 membership fee seems more suitable for protecting the big players and preventing startups than protecting customers.


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