Can a Computer Virus Destroy Your Hard Drive?

Category: Hard-Drives

Occasionally I hear from AskBob 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 possible for a virus to damage computer 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 (temporarily) 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 create 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 (also known as firmware) 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.

One exception to the "dirty work in secret" approach would be ransomware, which encrypts your data and demands payment to regain access. Any of these virus-related attacks can make it seem like the hard drive is "destroyed" from a user's perspective, but the physical hardware remains intact.

An event that might cause actual physical destruction of a hard drive, such as mechanical failure or "fried" electronic components, would require a power surge or physical tampering. Running over your laptop with a pickup truck, or dropping it from a 10th-story window would probably do the trick as well.

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 Computer Virus Destroy Your Hard Drive?"

Posted by:

Ron Mullard
18 Jun 2024

In my early days with computers I had virus's that meant I had to reinstall operating system and programs but never had to replace HHD (I was running a anti virus program....which I don't touch any more and was paid for)

Posted by:

Jene Wilcox
18 Jun 2024

In the very, very early days of the PC Expansion Unit, there was an exposure that software could cause the hard drive arms to repeatably seek beyond their limits and become misaligned. Also, there was the need to "park" the heads before moving equipment. These, and other problems, were quickly fixed by drive manufacturers. (If you have one of those old drives, I'm sure Bob would like to have it for his collection of ancient artifacts!) Can you imagine how this would apply to a solid state drive???

The dishonest computer technician sounds like the dishonest auto mechanic that pads his bill with unneeded "repairs"! Or maybe it's a "technician" that doesn't know the difference!

Posted by:

Linda Maloney
18 Jun 2024

Has anybody reported computer problems related to solar flares, such as were predicted in April? My old desktop and laptop Macs died within a week of each other at that time.
But the larger problem is planned obsolescence. It‘s fine to say you just have to replace the worn-out or damaged components, but if those components are no longer being manufactured you are out of luck. Nobody wants to — or can — work on Macs with Intel chips, at least not in northern VT where I live. I took my machines to a fine and respected repair shop, Small Dog Electronics, in Burlington. They told me there was no hope for the desktop; it went to recycling. They located a repaired motherboard for the laptop, but it is so out of date it can‘t deal with up-to-date software. When I first started using Macs, they were indestructible. Well, that was forty years ago.

Posted by:

19 Jun 2024

There were many internet virus warnnings of the past. "CNN declared this is the worst virus ever! It will destroy the zero sector of your hard drive." These warnings belonged in the same category as "free food at Applebees and Microsoft email payouts." Some rascals maybe had a lot of fun creating them relying on a gullible computer user to send the messages on to their friends.

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