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The hard drive of my laptop died, the manufacturer wants me to send it so that they can investigate, but I'm concerned that the drive might contain sensitive information.

When I say the drive is broken, the drive won't be recognized by my OS (meaning I can't use standard tools to wipe it) and I keep hearing clicking noises.

Is there something I can do to wipe the data without further damaging the hard drive?

The hard diskdrive is a standard drive, not a SSD.

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Well, in future, consider encrypting sensitive information. If you're hearing clicking noises, there's a good chance that the drive is physically damaged, and if you're lucky there should be nice long scratches on the platter –  Journeyman Geek Feb 2 '12 at 0:06
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definitely related, but closed: superuser.com/questions/343198/… of course destruction is not the preferred way in this case –  Jeff Atwood Feb 2 '12 at 0:37
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The clicking problem can sometimes be overcome temporarily by freezing the drive. However the affects last only a few minutes per freeze cycle (not long enough to wipe the drive.) –  Chris Nava Feb 2 '12 at 5:30
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Related question: serverfault.com/questions/74716/… –  sleske Feb 2 '12 at 11:00
    
See this question as well. –  Alex Feb 2 '12 at 21:24

9 Answers 9

up vote 101 down vote accepted

Do not return the drive if it contains customer or legally protected personal data.

For what it is worth, you may find that if you explain the situation to the support rep they will waive the return and let you destroy the dead drive.

HP have done this for me in the past.

Just tell them that you don't want to return the drive because of sensitive data, and you prefer to physically destroy it. The probable reason they want the dead drive is to make sure it really is dead and you aren't just trying to blag a free one. As long as they believe you they will probably let you keep it.

If they insist, then if your data is important and/or legally protected (most business data is), just take the hit on the cost of the drive.

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this does seem like the most rational option –  Jeff Atwood Feb 2 '12 at 0:38
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If they won't waive it, then offer to drill out the rivets that hold down the top shell of the drive and send that to them. –  Ignacio Vazquez-Abrams Feb 2 '12 at 5:24
    
@IgnacioVazquez-Abrams I've dismantled a number of old hard drives; they all used torx screws not rivets to hold them together. As a tamper detection mechanism at least one screw is normally hidden under the label. The easiest way to find that one I've found is just to scrape across the label itself with a screwdriver applying enough pressure to score it. The screw is recessed in a hole several times larger than its head so when you cross it you'll push the label in somewhat. Then just cut a cross over the depression with a knife and peal the label back to access the screw head. –  Dan Neely Feb 2 '12 at 16:32
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+1 for blag - a violent robbery. Reference.com believes it is a word while Merriam Webster does not... –  JYelton Feb 3 '12 at 15:51
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@JYelton, where I grew up Blag meant to claim something you weren't validly entitled to, e.g. claiming commision on a sale you knew was likely to fall through. I've also heard it in the sense of "false boasting". Blag as "armed robbery" seems to be a bit of London slang popularised by "lock stock", not from where I grew up. –  Ben Feb 3 '12 at 16:03

For completeness, there's always demagnetizing. Look for degaussers. You can also get a bunch of magnets and hope that scrambles enough of your data.

NSA approved degaussing wands appear to run about $500 - $600.

degaussing wand

There are some vague forum reports of buying very strong neodymium magnets and using those to degauss the drive by rubbing it on both sides:

I got the idea of using a permanent magnet to erase the drive but I read many postings of people who tried but failed using old speaker magnets. I then found a site called K&J Magnetics (http://www.kjmagnetics.com/) which sells super strong neodymium rare earth magnets.

I did some experiments on an extra working drive. The neodymium magnets fully erased a hard drive with less then 30 sec of rubbing in circles on both sides of the drives. They also worked great to erase 3-1/2" floppy disks and some flash memory cards.

Just be careful to read and heed the warnings about the magnets on K&J's site. The magnets are much stronger than you could imagine. Getting your finger caught between two magnets will cause a serious pinch. Also they are incredibly hard to get apart once they stuck together.

Looking through the magnet selection, one of the larger neodymium magnets will run you from $5-$20 so that's much more cost effective, if it works. However, according to their own blog, which performed an actual experiment on a live hard drive, this doesn't work at all! Per the comments, this might be because simple magnets don't offer the rapidly oscillating magnetic field that the commercial degaussers do.

So, pending any other experiments, I'd call the cheaper neodymium magnets busted; it's either the $500-$600 degaussing wand, or nothing.

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how much is a degausser that will work? Or can he borrow a degausser? Have you used one? Also, a proper degaussing will definitely erase the drive's firmware as well, which could be problematic.. though presumably the manufacturer can fix that. –  Jeff Atwood Feb 2 '12 at 0:39
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The trick to degaussing something is not strong magnetic fields, it's rapidly oscillating magnetic fields. The typical off-the-shelf degausser simply runs wall AC through a big coil. This produces a electromagnetic field that changes polarity 120 times a second. –  Fake Name Feb 2 '12 at 6:06
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Fake Name, alternating magnetic fields aren't important. What's important is overcoming the coercivity of the magnetic material, and for that, you need a strong field. If the applied field is too weak, you won't be able to affect the magnetic domains on the platter. –  Mark Bessey Feb 2 '12 at 6:49
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One thing to consider is that using a super-strong magnet to alter the data on the drive might conceivably cause the drive manufacturer to void your warranty. If they get your HDD that "just died!" and notice that it's been magnetically savaged, they might claim it's all your fault and charge you for the replacement. –  nhinkle Feb 2 '12 at 7:24
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Using K&J magnets will not work. Read their Blog-entry at kjmagnetics.com/blog.asp?p=hard-drive-destruction –  Espo Feb 2 '12 at 11:44

Its very hard to destroy data on a hard drive securely if you can't write to it. You could try downloading Darik's boot and nuke from http://www.dban.org and see if its able to run at all on the drive. You could also check if the manufacturer has a wipe policy on disk arrivals (Seagate does).

If you're particularly paranoid, buy a new drive and stash the old one in a safe until the data is no longer a security problem.

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Heh, you might've beaten me by a second or so. And with the same answer. Welcome to SU! –  music2myear Feb 1 '12 at 20:09
    
+1 for asking about the manufacturer's wipe policy, though the suggestion of stashing the drive doesn't allow Brann to send the disk back! –  shufler Feb 1 '12 at 20:09
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To be fair, stashing the drive is the only secure way to keep your data safe. Its up to the user to determine if data safety or drive warranty is more valuable. Sometimes you can't have your cake and eat it too :) –  mikebabcock Feb 1 '12 at 20:14
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Well, actually, I reported the issue on Friday, Dell FedExed me a new drive on monday with complete instructions to swap the two drives, and today a FedExe guy knocked at my door to grab the old disk. So Kudos to their support service ! But the thing is that now I guess I owe them a disk :) –  Brann Feb 1 '12 at 20:16
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Dell will bill you for the new hard drive if you do not return the defective drive within a few days. –  Moab Feb 1 '12 at 20:43

The SATA standard is supposed to have an internal command to wipe the drive. Theoretically if you send the drive erase command to the SATA chipset, it will remain until the drive manages a wipe. If you power the drive up, it will keep trying and nothing but replacement of the entire logic board could stop it.

Look up the Secure erase info at http://cmrr.ucsd.edu/people/Hughes/SecureErase.shtml This should work sufficiently since once you push the command to the drive, supposedly you can't stop the command. Whenever power is applied, it keeps trying.

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This is useful information (+1), but it seems like it doesn't directly answer this question since the manufacturer actually is in a position to replace the entire logic board. –  Kevin Feb 1 '12 at 23:21
    
Very interesting! –  George Bailey Feb 2 '12 at 15:12
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and if he cant access the drive from the os (unless you can see it in bios) I dont know how you can access this function –  mjrider Feb 2 '12 at 15:39
    
@Kevin - if you sent the drive back to say - Dell - they wouldn't be able, nor likely even interested in trying to replace the logic board. Maybe the original drive manufacturer could, but not the OEM. –  Blackbeagle Feb 2 '12 at 19:38
    
@mjrider - When you buy a new drive, it doesn't have an OS, but you can still access it to put on the OS. The software works in the same way - it doesn't matter if there is an OS on it or not, as long as the SATA channel is active and you can see the device and it answers, you should be able to flip the bit. –  Blackbeagle Feb 2 '12 at 19:40

If the hard drive contains data that sensitive, I wouldn't risk returning it; hard drives are inexpensive, and if the confidentiality of the data is worth more to you than the cost of a new hard drive, there's no point in trying to get your existing hard drive repaired.

The other option, of course, is magnets; mechanical hard drives are highly sensitive to magnetic fields, and strong magnets can be obtained in the form of Nd2Fe14B, or neodymium-iron-boron alloy. Neodymium magnets are found in large quantities as small discs that look like tiny coin cell batteries, and also in high-quality speakers, some screwdrivers, and ... um ... hard drives.

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and the case of the hard drive, shockingly enough, is a very well designed magnetic shield. The reason the drive magnets (which actuate the voice coil) don't affect the recording head is they are designed create a focused, parallel magnetic field –  Journeyman Geek Feb 2 '12 at 5:18
    
@JourneymanGeek - The drive magnets are found inside the case, and the case does not operate well as a magnetic shield (especially in desktop hard drives); this is most of the reason that dropping magnets in computers is not usually advised. The NIB magnets do create a very directional magnetic field, so that they can drive the recording head without affecting the recording surface (the important part), as you said; however, if these magnets are removed and places such that this field points into the drive through the outer casing, it will scramble the data on the platters, wiping the drive. –  Tortoise Feb 2 '12 at 5:30
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@Tortoise some of the degaussing pages I found said that the strict DOD standards require removing the top metal case of the drive before degaussing with a real degaussing wand, but it sounded like that was them being extra-extra super careful and going beyond what was typically necessary to erase the drive... –  Jeff Atwood Feb 2 '12 at 5:42
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@JeffAtwood I would guess so; the DOD standards also necessitate flash drives with self-destruct capability. –  Tortoise Feb 2 '12 at 23:58

Download a disk erase tool such as Dariks Boot and Nuke (DBAN, free), load it to a CD and boot your laptop from it. If your HDD is still basically functional it'll overwrite the data. If your HDD is physically dead the only way to securely erase is to obliterate the drive, which your manufacturer won't like.

The manufacturer ought to have decent security over this portion of their operations: They don't want people's information being harvest and publicly broadcasted any more than you do. If the disk is non-functional and cannot be overwritten, the odds are you're OK sending it back to them.

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I'm a fan of reporting rattling when I need to return a drive... then wrap it i n a towel and plastic bag and hit it with a hammer ln the top of the case. I try to do just enough damage to make the platters useless without it being intentionally damaged. Three to five whacks (not too heavy) seems to be just right.

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Get Yourself an old style VHS tape demagnetiser I have an old tandy one I purchased years ago. Apply alternating magnetic field to it for a while all round the disk and then the flat smash trick should be more than adequate for data destruction. Or am I wrong?

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If it's a laptop drive you can take it out in your hand and hit it flat over your desk (make sure to hit it directly flat to not cause any dents). After couple of hits most likely platters will go and become total mess (you can hear them being in pieces). Then you send back the drive. We were doing that as low-cost solution in our workplace where we had to send out few drives per month to HP, Fujitsu-Siemens, and Maxdata. They took them in. We had only once complains about it but we were doing it non-stop so they knew it's all on purpose. As long as you hit the drive flat keeping it in hand you shouldn't break the case but only platters inside.

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I cant imagine them taking this back under warranty. –  Keltari May 12 '13 at 21:17
    
They did, we did it over 2 years as I have been there :-) –  MadBoy May 12 '13 at 21:43

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