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 37 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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.

Posted by:

12 Nov 2014

Also overheating and overvolting which can be done now through the software can result in a hardware failure.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Lots of speculation and unsubstantiated claims there, most of which were dismissed by other commenters. I'll believe it when I see the code, and can use it to nuke one of my old drives. :-)

Posted by:

19 Aug 2015

I installed a game from pirate bay and within a day my hard drive went from 500gb to 0.0gb. Was it a virus or bad luck?


Posted by:

08 Dec 2015

Could a virus continually write to a single sector and wear it out? Could a virus "pick on" a number of "important" sectors and render a drive FUBAR?

EDITOR'S NOTE: I addressed that point in the article.

Posted by:

Raymond Duke
30 Dec 2015

Rightly said Gordon L. Please always explain that fact to your customers as said. Concerning Bob's article, I will say that it's still a virus which has render the hard drive unusable so it is a damage. It must be replaced to avoid extra costs and time.

Posted by:

15 Feb 2016

thanks man, i kept telling my friends the same thing...... now im certain of this issue :)

Posted by:

07 May 2016

I do not know how long this article has been out, but for a while software has been able to physically damage a hard drive. This is done by moving the "needle" in a way the hard drive gets broken.

Posted by:

29 May 2016

Hey bro i had losted my hp laotop becouzz i put my lappy shutdown for some days when virus was attacked on my lappy....

Posted by:

Eric S
07 Aug 2016

In "BASIC" programming class in 1986 in Burlington County college, our instructor was in his 60's, had known Mauchly and Eckert personally and said that "two years ago two students from Germany had wondered if it was possible to actually get the read/write head to physically impact the hard disk in our main disk drives" These were the big things that weighed several pounds, was over 2 feet on a side and three feet high like in "Terminator 2". they wrote a code that caused the heads to impact the disk surface and the disk kept spinning. He said "It literally carved a groove in the surface of the disk, and caused us $5,000 to replace the hard drive".
I have always taken him at his word.
This sounds like "Cousin Vinny Syndrome" but I just with I could remember his name.

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