Can a Virus Really Destroy a Hard Drive?

Category: Hard-Drives

Sometimes 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.

Of course, there are some perfectly good reasons for intentionally destroying a hard drive. If really WANT to do that, see my article How to Destroy a Hard Drive for some tips on getting it done.

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 a Hard Drive?"

Posted by:

AlanRC
29 Oct 2019

I totally agree that the viruses that we used to have back in the 90's are not a threat anymore, and no virus will physically destroy a hard drive. I guess you could say that Ransomware, which encrypts an entire drive and asks for money to unlock it, will destroy data, unless you pay the ransom. Even then, it doesn't actually destroy the drive. I think you just have to re-initialize and re-format the drive to get rid of the virus. Correct me if I'm wrong--I've never had to deal with ransomware personally.


Posted by:

GregC
29 Oct 2019

We had a power ( electricity ) failure while my Win 7 computer was defraging. Afterwards, I discovered that most sectors on the outer cylinder of HDD were damaged. It seems likely that the heads dropped onto the platter before these could come to rest in a safe location. I've said enough already, but you can get the idea. This HDD had less than 50 hours of operation. I partitioned out the bad sectors at the start of the drive and the remainder is OK, but I still can't bring myself to significantly use it. Of course as a boot OS drive its useless.


Posted by:

Eli Marcus
29 Oct 2019

Thank you Bob for reinforcing this. If only I knew then what I know today...I was the victim of the deadly Chernobyl (CIH) virus back in the year 2000. Someone handed me a software CD with various software installation packages, and when I activated one of them, the whole system went dead in about 30 seconds. I understood after a while that the BIOS on my PC was corrupted, but I don't recall now if I was prescient enough to salvage the hard drive and format it for later reuse.
Speaking of viruses, I have a small tip I can offer - A couple of years ago, I tried to clean up a virus riddled PC at work, and found that any software I tried to use was blocked by the viruses, and access to the internet was limited basically to news sites, but I couldn't access any antivirus or anti malware sites... It dawned on me to try using some portable apps I had on a USB drive, and lo and behold, it worked! I had to use a few of them one after the other to get a thorough cleaning, but the viruses on the PC apparently didn't identify the portable apps, so it worked quite nicely!


Posted by:

bobd
29 Oct 2019

When I wrote in a Microsoft forum that my attempt to upgrade from Windows 7 to Windows 10 bricked my motherboard, the expected cadre of ignorati claimed that was impossible. But of course, if a motherboard's UEFI (or BIOS) can be updated, it can be updated pathologically, just as can microcode in an external device.
Incidentally, there were rumors some years ago of software that could set IBM CRT displays on fire. I've never seen that.


Posted by:

Jdavis
29 Oct 2019

Not a hard drive, but as the Iranians about the centrifuges in their reactors that the USA and Israel attacked with a virus -- spun themselves to death.


Posted by:

RandiO
29 Oct 2019

A PC tech telling an innocent customer that a virus was the DOA of a disk drive really is not such a bad thing; as this little white lie simply provides a means for the customer to be more aware of this thing called a virus. 😎


Posted by:

John
30 Oct 2019

I know this is not a Windows computer, but I in the early Y2K I remember reading about DirecTV sending a signal down that intentionally destroyed (circuits actually burned) in the DirecTV receivers that contained hacked smart cards. I think we all know about Apple bricking all the iPhones that were repaired by unauthorized dealers. Apple lost a class action suit in doing so. I am not sure if the phones had physical damage or not, but were not repairable and had to be replaced.


Posted by:

Charles
30 Oct 2019

Low level software in the OS kernel sometimes controls CPU speed and also fans. this is the sofware that causes a laptop fan to speed up when the computer is doing "hard Tasks" like rendering video.

if that was tampered with the CPU could be commanded to top speed with no fans. that might very well damage the CPU.

also BIOS overwrites could damage the firmware on Motherboards and drives that Process Bios Updates - leaving a broken device that will not respond to updates.

not saying if any of these have happened - but never say never.


Posted by:

Jene
30 Oct 2019

In the very, very early days of the PC, there were a couple of hardware weaknesses that could be used to produce physical damage. These have been fixed.
A program loop that moves the disk access arm rapidly to the extremes could cause the alignment to be damaged. The original monochrome display could be burned out if the sweep circuit in the monochrome adapter were turned off, leaving direct current across the deflection coils. These vulnerabilities were fixed long ago.


Posted by:

BaliRob
30 Oct 2019

I concur with Bob's assertion that a Virus cannot damage a HD. So, apart from mechanical destruction, can someone tell me how/why MS's September Update for 8.1Pro damaged my Partition 1 on a relatively new 1TB HD? My technician WAS NOT trying to sell me a new HD and said that his HD tester had given this information and when I tested it myself as an external drive on the same computer (with a new HD) Windows reported that the HD was unusable but did not specify the reason.

Those that read this column will remember me bleating on about MS and its dangerous Updates causing havoc and causing problems for BOTH August and September - the second of which made it totally unable to get at the BIOS or System Restore and having been observed at switch-on trying to instal past Locked Screen without success. So we know it WAS MS's fault.

I still do not have the courage to allow the October 'roll-up' to touch my machine which also was issued for the Defender problem not known about.

Now Firefox's latest Update a few days ago has caused me real problems by changing from my original Language(Eng UK)to Indonesian where I reside - and has suggested that not having installed MS's roll-up has failed to let Firefox assume the Default to allow REFRESH to work properly. But only having unpaid support volunteers available to us - it is impossible to speak to any Firefox technician for an opinion and repair.

Thank you so much for your patience if you got this far hahaha. Comments really wanted.


Posted by:

Michael Scholl
30 Oct 2019

There are people who use the term "hard dtive" to describe their desktop computers. To them, perhaps, a virus COULD destroy their hard drive.


Posted by:

dbaSteve
31 Oct 2019

I had the flu and was so sick I wasn't thinking clearly. During the worst of my illness, I was working on my PC. Because I was sick, I dropped the hard drive and it broke. In this case, a flu virus destroyed my hard drive. :-)


Posted by:

BaliRob
01 Nov 2019

Further to mine of the 30th October - I can now report that Firefox has sorted Language Settings under > Menu > Tools > Settings which (even being in Indonesian) is now working. Thus no Language Pack needs to be incded in Add-Ons


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