Destroy Those Old Hard Drives
I have a couple of old computers to donate or take to a recycling facility, but first I want to remove the hard drives and destroy them. Researching the current best approaches to destroy old hard drives led me to some downright scary stories of identity theft or potential identity theft from consumers just following requirements for hard drive warranties or computer store repair policies. I thought I’d share a sampling of stories and recommendations on how to safely physically destroy those old hard drives. In addition, I’m including some humorous, light-hearted, and creative approaches to destroying those old hard drives.
First, the only sure way to make sure your hard drive’s data won’t get into the wrong hands is to physically destroy the drive. Some write that drilling at least 4 holes into the hard drive’s central disc is sufficient. Others recommend using a hammer or sledgehammer to destroy it by breaking or bending the actual platters:
'Remove the disks and crush the cases, making sure that you break or bend the actual platters. Use a hammer,' said Richard Stiennon of IT-Harvest.
Do you really need to go to such extremes? Do you really need to destroy those old hard drives? The answer I continue to see is an unequivocal yes! The above story, Destroy Old Hard Drives To Fend Off Data Thieves, continues:
Stiennon’s recommendation was prompted by BBC reports that Nigerian fraudsters have been buying recycled hard drives from the U.K., then diving into the data in search of usernames and passwords for accessing online bank accounts. According the BBC, drives are sold in the West African country’s commercial capital of Lagos for as little as 20 pounds ($37.87). Many of the drives the BBC found in Lagos came from U.K.-based recycling companies.
The story goes on to note the prevalence of buying “used” hard drives that contain sensitive data, and that often the previous owners have no idea, instead believing that the recycling company, computer store, or hard drive manufacturer totally erases all data or physically destroys the hard drives. In other words, they have no idea that their old hard drives, along with their sensitive data, could actually resurface or even be recovered and stolen by identity thieves.
Another data security hole can occur if you are required under warranty to turn in your current “broken” hard drive to get a replacement. Once you read about identity theft from simply trying to follow warranty requirements, perhaps you’ll think twice unless you’re absolutely certain that you have no sensitive data on that drive or anything else that you wouldn’t want to share with the whole world. Here’s one of the reasons why:
In June 2005, when Gerbus took his computer to Best Buy for repairs after a hard drive crash, he knew the drive was a potential hot potato. So when a clerk there told him it had to be replaced, he asked for the damaged hardware back.
No dice. The replacement was done for free, under warranty, and Gerbus was told the old drive had to be sent to a repair center in Chicago to fulfill warranty terms.
... Gerbus said he was assured that, after verifying the warranty, workers in Chicago would drill holes through the drive and make it unusable.
... Gerbus' hard drive did make it to Chicago. But instead of being destroyed, it landed in Ed’s hands.... Ed told Mr. Gerbus he’d purchased the drive at a flea market for $25, Hank Gerbus recalls. The two made arrangements to return the hardware to its rightful owner. But Gerbus has no idea who else might have seen the personal information in the interim.... A Best Buy spokeswoman didn’t dispute the details of Gerbus' story, but wouldn’t answer questions about the incident.
... It’s not clear why the drive wasn’t destroyed, and how it apparently ended up on the resale market. But Gerbus' tale of the nemesis of old hard drives is no isolated incident. There have been several celebrated cases of researchers buying hard drives at used equipment stores and discovering critical data on them.
In addition, keep in mind that using software to “delete” your data may not erase all data completely, permanently, even if you can’t see it yourself.
Simple deletion of data is not enough, as there are a variety of techniques that can be used to recover it. And data can be retrieved even from drives that have crashed, like Gerbus', using similar techniques.
On the other hand, drilling holes through a hard drive — and specifically the platter inside — is quite effective.
Too bad in Gerbus' case that wasn’t done.
What’s the lesson here? Perhaps when you bring in a computer for service, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring your own drill. Just in case.
In addition to checking out the complete story on this, 'I Just Bought Your Hard Drive', be sure to read through the comments from others at the end of that story. You’ll find many similar stories about a multitude of stores, computer companies, hard drive manufacturers, computer technicians, recycling facilities, and others.
While I’d love to think companies, stores, manufacturers, and technicians would all absolutely ensure that your sensitive data is safe, story after story indicates that this isn’t necessarily 100% true everywhere, even when you’re told your data is safe or that the hard drive will be physically destroyed, etc.
What to Do about a Defective Hard Drive Under Warranty?
Especially after reading scary stories, what should you do with a defective hard drive that’s covered under warranty? After all, we should be able to get a free replacement from the manufacturer as stated in the warranty, as long as the drive falls within the time period and meets the warranty requirements. It’s quite common to be required to send in your defective drive to get that free replacement, though, which I understand. The companies don’t want fraudulent claims that result in them giving away free hard drives when they aren’t justified.
The hard drive manufacturer or the store from where you purchased the drive must absolutely ensure your data’s safety and security. The stories I’ve read in my research show that this doesn’t always happen, though, unbeknownst to us consumers.
So, do a little research before turning in that broken hard drive under warranty. Make sure the companies you do business with actually do what they say they will do with your hard drives and that they really do ensure your data’s security. As these stories show, don’t just take their word for it. Do a few Google searches to make sure they’re good on their word. It’s more than worth the 30-60 minutes of research.
Is it Really so Easy to Retrieve Deleted Data?
Over the years I’ve had a couple of hard drive problems where I’ve needed to recover data from them - one years ago from a Microsoft “known issue” that deleted the data on an entire hard drive, and another from an external hard drive that failed (died of old age). In each instance I was able to recover the data myself using inexpensive data recovery software. My own experiences have been valuable lessons to me about the retrievability of supposedly permanently erased data. (I also learned long ago to pay attention immediately to those weird clicking noises that can be a helpful warning of an impending hard drive failure!).
So I know firsthand that it’s not too difficult to retrieve data from a crashed hard drive when you use good data recovery software. It’s clear, especially from reading these stories, that identity thieves can also recover supposedly erased data with very little effort. In addition, if you watch any of the forensics shows on TV, you’ve also seen that law enforcement can recover all kinds of deleted data with their more sophisticated tools. The technology is out there.
Disclaimer regarding the links to File Scavenger Disk Data Recovery Program: I’m just a happy customer. I’m not being paid in any way to recommend, mention, or link to their software.
What about Giving Your Computer to a Friend or Family Member?
Some mention that if you’re giving your computer to a friend or family member that you “probably” don’t need to remove and/or destroy its hard drives; however, my own view is that it’s still best to remove and/or destroy the drives. While your friend or family member is trustworthy if they do stumble upon sensitive data, you may not know with absolute certainty what they’ll do with the drives when they replace the computer or drives, or how a computer repair store or technician might handle the hard drives, such as requiring to keep the old drive to replace it in order to adhere to warranty requirements (a common practice that leaves consumers wide open to identity theft, as noted above). Another consideration is physical theft of the computer, especially laptops.
For optimum security, especially after reading some of these stories, I still feel it’s best to destroy those old hard drives regardless of who you’re giving that computer to. The only exception I’ve made over the years is when I’ve given my older computers to my children still living at home where the computers remain in my physical possession. In that case, when it’s time to replace those hard drives or the computers, I can still personally remove and/or destroy the hard drives, especially when donating or recycling the computers.
What about Donating or Recycling Your Old Computer?
If you’re donating your old computer, it may not be required to have a hard drive in them. If they do require an installed hard drive, you can then also most likely write off the new hard drive purchase as part of your donation (but check your local tax information to know for sure).
On the other hand, if you’re taking your old computer to a recycling center, they typically don’t require a hard drive installed or that the computer even works.
Destroying Hard Drives
My own first choice is to use a hammer to physically destroy an old hard drive after I remove it from its housing. I keep hammering away until the drive itself is shattered into bits. I also like the drill idea, which I may try next time around.
While I don’t recommend actually doing this yourself, here’s a YouTube video of someone getting creative by using a train to help destroy a hard drive:
See more possibilities below under the YouTube videos, including using a sledgehammer, a ball-peen hammer, a blow torch, a barbell, and more.
More Information, Resources
- 5 Ways To Destroy Your Hard Drive
Article dated July 07, 2006 by Andy Boyd, BoydCreative.
- Destroy Your Data - Or Else!
Article dated 2007 by Tim Margeson, for IT Security.
- Destroy Old Hard Drives To Fend Off Data Thieves
Article dated August 21, 2006 by Gregg Keizer, TechWeb, for Information Week.
- 'I Just Bought Your Hard Drive'
Article dated June 05, 2006 by Bob Sullivan for The Red Tape Chronicles, MSNBC.
- MIT researchers uncover mountains of private data on discarded computers
Article dated January 15, 2003 by MIT News Office.
- Recover This!
Article dated 2004 by Dave Bulluck, Drive Slagging.
- UK Bank Details Sold in Nigeria
Article dated August 14, 2006 by Real Story, BBC News.
YouTube Videos of Destroying Hard Drives
People can certainly get clever with how they destroy hard drives. Here are a few that made me chuckle, but there are plenty more at YouTube, too.
- Break a Hard Disk
Using a ball-peen hammer to break up a hard drive. Dated July 29, 2007.
- Destroy Your Hard Drive, Part 3
Using a blow torch to destroy a hard drive. Dated July 22, 2007.
- Hard Drive Destroy Comp '06
Using a sledgehammer to destroy a hard drive. Dated January 04, 2007.
- Hard disk killers :-)
Using a barbell to destroy a hard drive. Dated February 08, 2007.
- Train Vs. Hard Disk 2
Using a train to run over and destroy a hard drive. Dated June 03, 2007
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