A Virus Destroyed Your Hard Drive?

Category: Hard-Drives

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 sometinkg like “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.

So can a virus actually damage or destroy a hard drive? 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.

People who claim it has happened are wrong, misled, or are being disingenuous. Or it could be what I call “Cousin Vinny Syndrome” -- a modern day version of “I heard it from my cousin who has a friend who knows a guy who lives near the police department in a major city, and he knows about this stuff.” A classic example of false authority syndrome.

Hard Drive Virus Damage

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.

Of course, there are some perfectly good reasons for intentionally destroying a hard drive. If really WANT to do that, see my article So You Want to Destroy a Hard Drive for some tips on getting it done (without a virus).

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. (See my related article Tune and Optimize Your Hard Drive for some tips on how to keep your hard drive running smoothly, and one tool that can help you recover a seemingly scrambled drive.)

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 "A Virus Destroyed Your Hard Drive?"

Posted by:

19 Sep 2022

I've heard it said that long before the PC, some computer hard drive parameters were software controlled and could be manipulated from within the operating system. The story goes that it was possible to cause a disk to spin so fast that it could damage the hard drive.

Posted by:

Jeff G
19 Sep 2022

I had a solid state drive that suddenly gave up the ghost one day. Not saying it was a virus, but my point is that something destroyed it and noting I could do would get it to be recognized again. Luckily Crucial replaced it under warranty, but they never told me what was wrong.

Posted by:

19 Sep 2022

Complete Hard Drive failure? Boot from a Windows .iso. Early on, in the install, it will allow a "Custom" install. You could format each partition from there, but better yet, delete each and every partition and then install. If Windows installs, the Hard Drive has not been destroyed,

Posted by:

N Oyb
19 Sep 2022

Okay, I'll add to the urban legend. While it refers to a university data center rather than a PC, they had a tech rep who was reluctant to replace a flaky hard drive because of the cost so an enterprising programmer wrote a long channel program loop to do binary seeks on the drive and turned it loose one night to shake that drive apart when head positioning mechanism reached a resonating point. University and manufacturer omitted to protect the guilty.

Posted by:

Steve K
19 Sep 2022

On January 1, 2000 -- yes, Y2K -- my computer wouldn't boot up.
My buddy, who taught computers, said the hard drive was destroyed by a virus.
At the time I knew less than nothing about computers. (Today I know just a little about computers.) A new hard drive later, I was up and running.
Only hard drive in my life that ever broke on me.

Posted by:

Bob K
19 Sep 2022

Well, it wasn't a virus, but something did!

I run a dual-boot system, with Ubuntu and Win 10 on it. The hard drives were a pair of these little HD sticks that plug into the motherboard. One stick is for the Ubuntu, the other had a couple partitions, one for the Win 10, an other for Win 8.1.

I ran the checking utility to see if I could upgrade to Win 11. It complained about my not having TPM. I checked the BIOS, and apparently I could turn it on, which I did. What I did not realize, this motherboard has two options, one based on a plugin chip (not present) and one that is software based.

In rerunning the utility for checking, I started to get all kinds of HD errors. None of the Windows error correcting utilities would mark out bad sectors. The HD was a NVMe sex, and the utilities from WD would hardly recognize either of those hard drives.

All the bad spots were within the Win 10 partition.

Trying to reformat that partition (and letting the formatter mark out bad sectors would simply give up.

I had a different SD (not NVMe) that I moved the Win 8.1 to, and reinstalled the Win 10. I find the BIOS now does not let me turn off the TPM, but gives me the choice of 2 versions, 2.0 being what Win 11 wanted. I'm not even sure which version I have it running at now.

Since that time, on the present Windows HD I resized partitions and have squeezed in Win 11, that does run.

Posted by:

Mark Hoffman
19 Sep 2022

It has been my understanding that the centrifuges were forced to spin much too fast and that destroyed them. (see references below.)
I'm pretty sure that disk drives do not allow any software or firmware to alter their speed.

Stuxnet reportedly compromised Iranian PLCs, collecting information on industrial systems and causing the fast-spinning centrifuges to tear themselves apart.[7]
The worm ... could thus ... even cause the fast-spinning centrifuges to tear themselves apart, unbeknownst to the human operators at the plant.

Posted by:

19 Sep 2022

Amusing story, N Oyb, but without any evidence it's just that: an amusing story.

Posted by:

20 Sep 2022

There used to be bogus virus warnings circulating on the Internet. CNN always declared these viruses "the worst ever" as it would "attack the 0 sector of a hard drive" or some other technical gobbledegook, and destroy the drive. It never happened but some prankster may have frightened many pc users into purchasing a good AV program.

Posted by:

20 Sep 2022

Bob, you are to be congratulated on this first
DEFINITIVE contradiction acusing viruses of damaging HDDs that I have read.

Very interesting

Posted by:

John Citron
20 Sep 2022

While I agree that mainstream malware can't destroy a hard drive, there is a known one that can by writing to the hard drive firmware.


I had read about this before but had to search again for this article which is quite Geeky and may be beyond many of us. I'm also not sure how prevalent this malware is.

There is also some malware in the wild that attacks the UEFI partition on the hard disk. This is more or less a hidden hybrid of the computer configuration found in the ROM with additional configuration information for settings.

From what I've read, this malware remains even after the hard drive has been wiped, rendering the hard drive useless. This doesn't kill the drive, but it makes the system forever unsafe to use.

EDITOR'S NOTE: I read the entire article from the https://www.antiy.net/ site and it's somewhat vague and speculative. It's not clear if such malware actually exists, and if it does, also unclear if the actions are reversible with another firmware flash.

Posted by:

DBA Steve
20 Sep 2022

In the good old days (before PCs), the story told by N Oyb up above could easily be true. The hard drives in those days could actually be made to rock back and forth, IF you really drove the read/write heads back and forth. Remember, these devices were the size of a small (e.g. stackable) washing machine. The platters were maybe 12 inches across, so the heads might have to move 6 inches. AND, they were terribly expensive. N Oyb's story brought back some good memories.

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