So You Want to Destroy a Hard Drive
A concerned reader asks: 'I am getting rid of an old computer, and I want to make sure NONE of the data on the hard drive can be be accessed. (Don't ask me why) What is the best way to destroy a hard drive and ALL the data on it?' There are plenty of options, read on for my advice...
Hard Drive Destruction
It 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 your private or 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 Securely 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 some 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.
Years ago I read a story about a paranoid man who had rigged up a system to destroy his hard drive in the event that the "men with dark sunglasses" came knocking on his door. He had a kill switch that would turn on a powerful magnet, which he assumed would wipe the drive clean. But subjecting a hard drive to a strong 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.)
Note that "death by fire" is a dangerous method; there are many toxic chemicals in hard drives and optical disks 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 sheet metal screws 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, with the right forensic tools, 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. (I recently bought an angle grinder from Harbor Freight for $15 and now it's my favorite tool.)
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. Again, safety first.
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 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, but it's safe to assume they are prohibited by local and federal laws.
The safest way to destroy a hard drive is to send it to a facility like Ameri-Shred 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 computers or 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 unfriendly hands somehow.
Do you have something to say about destroying a hard drive? Post your comment or question below...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 10 Mar 2020
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- So You Want to Destroy a Hard Drive (Posted: 10 Mar 2020)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved