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I have a broken HDD that contains sensitive data. Since no software can access the disk, I can't wipe it using any of the tools generally suggested.

Breaking the disk physically into very small pieces would probably suffice, but that would require some good tools to do. Just waving a magnet around the disk might still leave the data recoverable by data recovery experts, or am I wrong?

What's an effective way to clear the sensitive data?

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  • 1
    Lifehacker has an article on this subject
    – mjrider
    Commented Apr 29, 2011 at 20:31
  • Just for kicks, here's a Google data center procedure for this.
    – hyperslug
    Commented May 1, 2011 at 1:43
  • May I add that in the future you could just never keep sensitive data on the platter without strong encryption. That helps also in the case of it getting lost or stolen.
    – Keith
    Commented May 24, 2011 at 1:54

17 Answers 17

18

You're correct; physical destruction is the only good way to do this (you'd need a magnet so strong that it's not feasible to get one for most people unless you're on staff at the Large Hadron Collider). Professional disposal operations generally do this with an industrial metal shredder. For you, bending the platters with a hammer, sandpapering them, and then running a drill through them in multiple points is sufficient to stop anything but advanced forensic data recovery. If you're really concerned about even that, or you just want style points, you might try thermite. It is usually sufficient to melt the platters entirely.

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    Let no man say that SU does not provide help to even the most (seemingly) felonious-helpingly of questions. :P
    – Ragnar
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 14:22
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    @Ragnar - I don't see anything felonious about not wanting people to fish your hard drive out of a dumpster and steal your credit card numbers (although I do personally think actually destroying a drive is too paranoid in 99% of situations)
    – Shinrai
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 14:25
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    @Shinrai - It was just a joke, I was not assuming anything about anybody. I... just thought it would be funny. :(
    – Ragnar
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 14:27
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    @Ragnar - I just read it uncharitably. Sorry to be a buzzkill!
    – Shinrai
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 14:27
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    I had a hard time choosing which of the many excellent answers to accept. In the end I accepted this because the combined hammer-sandpaper-drill is very easy to do and might be more secure than doing just one of them... Commented Apr 29, 2011 at 22:42
21

Save time, I just use a 5lb hammer.

Note: wear safety goggles.

enter image description here

Or buy one of these

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    You might want to add safety goggles to this equation. :)
    – Shinrai
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 18:25
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    The technical name is BFH.
    – Chad Levy
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 19:33
  • Banhammers are more efficient... Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 23:35
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    I actually had a bunch of old disks that I had to destroy recently. I took the platters out, which are primarily aluminum, and put them in a buck of muriatic acid. Literally ate them away.
    – KCotreau
    Commented Jul 9, 2011 at 0:19
  • I just tried this and found it remarkably ineffective. I can't believe how strong the casings of HDDs are.
    – NickG
    Commented Apr 8 at 11:54
18

On newer drives, even the high-power magnets I used to use don't work anymore to erase the disk.

If you have a spike, or similar object (hard metal that is pointed, think of a nail that is much bigger) and drive it through the center of the chassis with a hammer. That will bend the platers and damage the heads making it extremely difficult to recover.

A land stake from the hardware store should work for this.

Dispose of the board separate from the drive. This way any encoding information about the drive recorded on the controller will not be available making recovery exponentially more difficult.

After all that, you can safely send the remains to a computer recycler for shredding.

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  • I like dropping a stack of drives from one floor up, down onto concrete before taking the hammer to them -- very fun. Also, the claw on a claw hammer does a pretty good job as a 'spike'. :) Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 15:22
  • @techie007 - You've got a stronger arm than I do...
    – Shinrai
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 17:14
  • @Shinrai - Strong arm? I'm a pencil-neck geek! ;) Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 17:17
  • @techie007 - Well, I can't put a claw hammer through a hard drive!
    – Shinrai
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 17:34
  • @Shinrai - You're not trying hard enough. ;) It's not going to go all the way through, but it'll go through the lid and into the platters pretty easily. :) Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 18:15
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Apparently the method a certain british university uses is drilling a hole through it. Failing which, thermite.

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    +1 for drilling a hole through it, while a very good forensic company could read the unholy parts they're gonna charge a fortune to read something with ragged holes in thats likely to damage their very expensive kit. Make sure you're drilling a couple of holes in the platter though!
    – Robb
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 19:30
  • 1
    We use a small drill, and drill in several spots at the University I work at where sensitive data is a big thing. Commented Apr 29, 2011 at 3:50
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In addition to all the advice above mentioning physical demolition, I would like to add putting the platters in an oven at the highest possible temperature for ca 20 minutes. IIRC, at those temperatures (if sustained) the magnetic information is lost.

If you think that is insufficient, heat up the platters over an open flame until they more or less glow (gas stoves are great for this!). At that point any information on them is essentially wiped. The flame of a candle could be sufficient, but would require some patience as you "anneal" the surface one square centimeter at a time.

Melting them with termite certainly will destroy the information, but is messy and dangerous and essentially not something you can do at home (in contrast to use a kitchen oven or gas stove).

Edit: Disclaimer: even if using an oven or gas stove is relatively safe from a fire hazard perspective, heating these platters might emit unpleasant and potentially toxic fumes. Make sure you have some good ventilation. Also, what I had mind when writing the above is to just heat the platters themselves, not the entire harddrive with controller card and all. (Disclaimer added as per Shinrai's recommendation).

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  • I'm actually hesitant to +1 this because, while you're right, heating these at those temperatures for sustained periods of time can cause all kinds of toxic gases to leech out and be in your house. At least thermite is obviously "STAY THE HELL AWAY FROM THIS" dangerous. Add a disclaimer and I'll gladly +1 though because this is good science.
    – Shinrai
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 21:11
  • @Shinrai: good point regarding toxic gases, I've added the disclaimer.
    – IllvilJa
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 21:29
  • also are hard disks air tight? If so they may explode like a can in an oven Commented Apr 29, 2011 at 1:40
  • This might not be adequate - the Curie temperature is higher than I thought - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curie_point Commented Apr 29, 2011 at 2:17
  • @Mark Ransom: Yes, the temperature of an oven might be sufficient to risk the loss of information on the hard drive platters (I got that information from a vendor of datacenter fire security solutions), but it might still be in the "gray area" temperature wise where you still cannot guarantee the loss of information. Making the platters glow (reaching temperatures of several hundred degrees celsius) should really render the information unreadable. (And again, in addition to this, inflict some of the suggested violence to the drive and it's data is really unrecoverable at that point)
    – IllvilJa
    Commented Apr 29, 2011 at 9:05
5

You could use a Propane Torch to do the job. You can melt the platters with it. Clean job :-)

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5

Works on Windows, Linux, and Mac...

http://www.diskstroyer.com/

enter image description here

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  • I'm sorry, but this is basically a scam. Taking apart a hard disk is easy as cheese. Scratching up the platters like that does not destroy the data completely. The reason people suggest drilling holes or thermite is because the data is not only stored on the surface of the platters, it is also stored inside the platters as well. Take a look at how the data is stored.
    – bobobobo
    Commented Sep 17, 2013 at 18:40
5

I opened a lot of drives, and they contain strong neodym magnets inside, so I suspect that trying to erase the data from outside is a waste of time. However, I would like to hear an expert, if just the electronics get destroyed by strong magnetism, or how much energy you need, to erase a hdd from outside.

But most drives have small stickers at the side, which cover small wholes, about as thick as a pencil. You can open the drive, fill it with sand, and turn it around sometimes. Or scratch the surface with a screwdriver or something like that.

hdds with hole on the side - more or less taken apart

I can recommend to open the drive, to get to the magnetic end of the head. Meanwhile, you get to the platters and can scratch them enough, to make it expensive as hell to recover some data.

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You should take it to a shooting range! What better way to improve your aim, destroy the disk, and have fun while doing all that.

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  • Bah! You're faster than me, I was just in the process of posting this answer! Do be sure to pick up after yourself, though, there's heavy metals in there you shouldn't leave lying around. Also, safety glasses.
    – Kromey
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 19:27
  • 2
    Shouldn't you wear safety glasses at the shooting range ANYWAY?
    – Shinrai
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 19:39
  • 4
    this is very dangerous, as it is possible for the bullet to ricochet off the hard drive, -1. I wouldn't do this even if you paid me.
    – studiohack
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 20:49
  • 2
    Kevlar is the answer Commented Apr 29, 2011 at 1:41
  • 1
    @studiohack i would :) Commented May 2, 2011 at 17:52
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Here is a step by step guide on how to take apart the drive and then sand the and destroy the platters to surely make the data unreadable.

http://web.archive.org/web/20130705190750/http://zatz.com/dominopower/article/how-to-destroy-a-hard-drive-on-purpose/

Also, instead of using the Torx screws, you can use a flat-head to remove the top of the hard drive.

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  • Agreed. Just get a torx screwdriver, or else a set of precision screwdrivers with small flat-heads (you can probably get one from the dollar-store). Open the cover, remove the platters, and have your way with them. Hell, you don’t even have to destroy them, you can use them in some sort of tech-craft. (Also, once you’ve got the platters out, you can likely use a normal magnet directly on them to corrupt them enough.)
    – Synetech
    Commented May 24, 2011 at 4:05
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The only way to permanently destory data with no chance of any recovery regardless of how much effort you could put into recovery is to heat the platters to the Curie point. Granted, that's possibly beyond the point at which the platters will turn to molten metal, but for absolute certainty of destruction in a cost-is-no-object scenario I'd feed the disks through a hammer shredder and then melt the results into bars.

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It should be pointed out that it doesn't take much distortion of the magnetic signal to make the disks useless. The forensic techniques that used to be effective on a drive are now part of the standard electronics, just to get the densities required. A little sandpaper is probably perfectly effective.

If you want total security, just keep the platters and use them as coasters.

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Years ago, you used to be able to smack the center with a ball peen hammer, and this was enough to knock the platters off of the axis, and the minute someone came along and tried to power up the drive, the platters would get shredded internally when it tried to spin. Not sure if this is still a valid tactic or not.

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  • I don't think this works so well anymore but I really don't know. I'd forgotten this trick!
    – Shinrai
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 19:16
  • I guess works best if I knew how hardy the modern hardware was on the inside... if the drives are as fragile on the inside as they were, say 8 years ago, then I think this may still work.
    – DaBaer
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 19:29
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The site http://www.diskstroyer.com/ sells a kit that includes the equipment and directions about how to destroy the drive.

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According to wikipedia, sufficient quantities of concentrated hydrofluoric acid will completely dissolve glass, ceramic, and aluminum, the three most common substrates for hard disk platters.

It's not exactly a household item, though.

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Call a couple of your local document shredding companies. Most have gotten into the media destruction angle at this stage. Around here (New England) the average cost is about $10/disk for them to drop it into a monster chipper. Itsy bitsy pieces out the other end. If I do this for a client, I usually get a zip-lock baggie of pieces to bring back to them as proof, along with the receipt. I used to use several of the methods above, but for $10, it's not worth the time and effort.

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Some one at Lifehackers must have read your post.

http://lifehacker.com/#!5797029/how-to-dismantle-and-destroy-a-hard-drive

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