Easiest way to destroy a hard drive in situ?
April 6, 2011 3:17 AM   Subscribe

I'm having trouble disassembling an old desktop PC to get to the hard drive before I can destroy it and throw everything out. Is there a quick and easy way to destroy the drive in situ, using everyday household objects?

I have an old desktop PC that I need to throw out. My intention was to disassemble it, remove the hard drive, and smash it with a hammer. However, once I got the casing off, it turns out that all the screws are so tight I can't budge them at all after more than an hour of effort.

I hadn't really planned on making this my life's work. Is there some way I can destroy the hard drive without removing it first? Pour Coke into it or something?

Also I want to use everyday household objects. I don't have easy access to industrial magnets, etc etc, so unless you can totally wipe a hard drive with a fridge magnet, I'm ruling magnetism out as an option.
posted by tel3path to Computers & Internet (36 answers total)
I take it the PC doesn't boot, so you can't multi-pass-wipe (write zeroes seven times, etc.) it with software?
posted by alexandermatheson at 3:25 AM on April 6, 2011

I've run a kitchen blowtorch over old hard drives in the past, which can be done in situ given reasonable care, but I'm not sure that altogether counts as an everyday household object.

Looking at it another way, if you've got a big hammer, why not just smash away indiscriminately till the thing is either detached or sufficiently bent?
posted by Segundus at 3:30 AM on April 6, 2011

Thanks guys. I have been smashing away at it with a hammer, which is why it won't boot so multi-pass-wiping isn't an option. All I got for my troubles is a slightly dented assembly. As much as I wish I had a blowtorch, I haven't.

Of course if I'd wanted to get more use out of it and dropped it on the floor, it would have shattered into a million pieces. As it is, it seems damn near indestructible.
posted by tel3path at 3:40 AM on April 6, 2011

Your data is very unlikely to be so sensitive that a software solution such as DBAN won't be enough. Physical destruction of the disk may make you feel better, but except in extreme circumstances (i.e. someone having the motivation, serious money and time to conduct a tedious forensic analysis of your drive) there's no real benefit.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 3:44 AM on April 6, 2011

Well, keep going with the hammer then. Sounds like a workout if nothing else...
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 3:52 AM on April 6, 2011

Drill through the HD case and the platters a few times.
posted by Splunge at 3:56 AM on April 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you have access to the cables running from the drive and an appropriate SATA/IDE to USB adapter, you should be able to hook it up to another machine and wipe it from there.
If, OTOH, the drive is permanently and inaccessibly attached to the now-dead computer, it sounds like your problem is more or less solved already.
posted by marakesh at 4:02 AM on April 6, 2011

Just drill out the screws to remove it.
posted by turkeyphant at 4:18 AM on April 6, 2011

Wow, I was hoping for a lot more evil genius type stuff in this thread. Are there no chemical ways to destroy the drive? I bet drano would funk it up right good. Or maybe you could pour vinegar and baking soda to make it froth up and pretend like it's melting? Or you could be more boring and just pour some molasses on any open areas and just literally stick up all the moving parts on the inside!

Come on, mefites, get creative!
posted by Grither at 4:31 AM on April 6, 2011

The problem is that the data in it is sensitive enough that I want to be very sure. It's got all of my bank details and investment account details and all that sort of rot.

I also have been hammering away enough to damage the cable connections, which were so firmly lodged in place I couldn't disconnect them.

I may have to borrow a drill, I think.

But if anyone has any evil genius chemical solutions, that'd be nice. I like the molasses idea... don't know about crackers, but I'd get plenty of ants.
posted by tel3path at 4:47 AM on April 6, 2011

Come on, mefites, get creative!

posted by samsara at 5:06 AM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thermite doesn't srike me as a 'household object'.

In the US there is about one firearm per person, if you don't have one you could ask your neighbor.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 5:57 AM on April 6, 2011

Also I want to use everyday household objects. I don't have easy access to industrial magnets, etc etc, so unless you can totally wipe a hard drive with a fridge magnet, I'm ruling magnetism out as an option.
How about a homemade electromagnet? Wrap high-gauge wire around a cylindrical object, plug it into a power source, and Bob's your uncle.

Please don't take this advice seriously without doing extensive research and taking safety precautions. Don't go off plugging this into the wall socket or a car battery. The important thing to remember is that you need a very large amount of current and this will both make the inner code extremely hot and instantly kill you if you touch it.

Homemmade electromagnets.
posted by asymptotic at 6:08 AM on April 6, 2011

Well, if your original goal was smashing it with a hammer and your problem is removing the drive from the case because of too-tight screws, run-of-the-mill (and cathartic!) destructive solutions are quite possible.

Drilling the platters is probably the simplest, but absent access to a drill or other tools, I would probably try dropping the entire case from a window onto concrete. Or even lifting the case over your head and throwing it onto concrete. That bit of smashy-smashy might be enough to knock the drive loose, or expose parts that are big enough to let you pry out the drive.

If you don't have pokey metal things sticking out of the case, you could even try running it over with an automobile.

For all practical purposes, I think smashing the connections followed by a good soak in something nice and corrosive would be enough to secure personal data. I can't point to any peer-reviewed publications that discuss attempts to destroy or recover data in such a matter, but I think your goal is to prevent some l33t d00d from finding the computer in a scrapheap or recycle pile and plugging it in. If you force your l33t d00d to resort to platter-based recovery techniques only available to three-letter agencies (or those with mega bankrolls), you've mitigated 99.999% of your actual risk.

Have fun, stay safe.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 6:10 AM on April 6, 2011

Ok, this may or may not work, depending on the temperatures involved, and it may release a lot of really noxious fumes. That said: Take out the platters and bake them. Even better, fire up a grill, and put the platters directly on the coals.

The heat should disrupt the magnetic domains of the drive, erasing it permanently.
posted by Th_ at 6:12 AM on April 6, 2011

Oops, realized I forgot a step in my previous comment. To clarify, I was suggesting Office Space-copier-esque smashy-smashy versus the entire case to knock the hard drive out, followed by specific targeted destruction at the knocked out drive.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 6:18 AM on April 6, 2011

A drill would work. Or if you have enough of the case apart that you can see the HD an angle grinder with a cutting disk sliced into it a couple times would do the trick. If you have any welding or autobody shops near you $10 would get that thing cut up in no time.
posted by Mitheral at 6:34 AM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Dissolve a little styrofoam in an organic solvent like petrol or turpentine, then dribble it into the drive. Dribble out a little taper, or just find a barbecue lighter, then ignite. It's not spectacular, but burns hot and then condenses to an indestructible mush of junk polymers that will be impossible to remove without further ruining the drive.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 6:44 AM on April 6, 2011

The electromagnet solution won't work. You'd need a degausser... not just a homemade electromagnet.

At this point if you are serious about it, you need to drill out the screws to get the drive out of there, then destroy it as you like.
posted by utsutsu at 7:15 AM on April 6, 2011

You may not be able to get it out of the case (and you may have smashed it up too far), but do you have enough access room to get the harddrive enclosure screws out? If so (or if you can cut it out of your case with, say, tin snips), you could still remove the platters and use them as fancy frisbees.
posted by bookdragoness at 7:30 AM on April 6, 2011

Put some lighter fluid into it and light it. Or gasoline.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:53 AM on April 6, 2011

For future reference, when you have sensitive data that you wish to destroy, FIRST ERASE IT IN SOFTWARE.

Consider a low-tech example of a cassette tape. (We all remember these right??) Now pretend you don't have fire. "Oh I know," you say. "I'll just pull the ribbon out the front and stomp on the plastic cartridge a bunch!" Congratulations, you have erased no data. "Oh, I guess you could still respool it if you had enough time," you say. "I'll chop it up with a scissors into small pieces!" Once again, to you, I say congratulations, you have not erased any significant amount of data. You remember that the Iranians put back together hundreds of fully shredded papers from the US embassy, right? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paper_shredder#Unshredding

While hard drives are much more sensitive pieces of technology, I maintain that the same principle applies. What you first want to do is take your 100% working hard drive, and erase the bajesus out of it with normal, computer-based means. As people have pointed out upthread, once you change the bits on the drive, it gets MUCH MUCH harder to read it. Even erasing the whole drive once will mean that someone will need to dig out technology that I'm not even familiar with to figure out what the data was before you overwrote it. Once you write to it (approximately) 7 times, this becomes neigh-impossible.

I could point you here, but really just download a copy of ubuntu, boot off the live cd, and type "shred -n7 /dev/device_your_hard_drive_is (probably /dev/sd0)" Now go about your normal activities for the next 2-24 hours. And when you're done, donating your working hard drive to a tech donation center near you, instead of putting it in a landfill.

Ok, now that I'm done saying that, let me assure you that no matter how big your credit card balance is, once you open and bend the hard drive platters, it is no longer worth trying to read data off that drive. It's going to be extremely expensive to do. Again, I'm not even sure who to call about doing something like that. But if you REALLY want to destroy your drives: first erase them as above, and then call someone like these guys (note I have NO IDEA who they are, but their picture is killer). You will notice that they SHRED HARD DRIVES. Which is what the government does (if the rumors I've heard are true), with their hard drives that hold classified data, after they erase their drives via software, and before they bury them forever in the middle of the frickin desert!

Anyhoo, now that your particular drive is past the "operational" phase of it's life, I'd say your best bet is running strong magnets on it, and then bending the crap out of it, and dumping it in the trash where noone will look at it anyways. If you don't have any rare-earth magnets in your house, continue opening your hard drive and find the ones in there.
posted by Phredward at 8:02 AM on April 6, 2011

A lot of these suggestions are fun, but if you're looking for real data security, ineffective. The thing is, if you don't have somebody actively trying to steal your data, then bashing the connectors on the drive so that it can't be plugged in anymore is plenty. To get at your data would require scavenging a new controller card that matches your drive, which is more effort than your generic thief is going to go through.

If, on the other hand, you're concerned that your data is valuable enough that somebody may really be pursuing it, you're not going to do anything by dunking it in Drano or burning it with lighter fluid or gasoline. You might get the controller nice and corroded/melted, but the platters inside are still hanging out mostly untouched, probably with your data still on them.

If you think Option 2 describes your situation, you need to physically destroy the drive platters. Cut the drive out of the case, drill the screws out of the top cover, and smash the platters. Or take the drive to be shredded. Whatever.

The point is, you almost certainly don't need to worry after you've done a bit of physical damage to the drive, but if you think you need to go a little bit past that, you need to go all the way.
posted by aaronbeekay at 8:06 AM on April 6, 2011

Hard drives are miracles of engineering. Platters whirl fast very close to the read/write heads. Dropping the whole thing out of the window should put a permanent stop to that.

Alternatively, the top of the drive is usually comparatively thin. Stab through it, peel it back, ensure the platter underneath can't be read.
posted by Idcoytco at 8:17 AM on April 6, 2011

It doesnt need to boot. Use a bootable CD like DBAN and just zero the drive out once. You don't need to do multi-passes or anything - they are of questionable utility and so far no one has been able to recreate files from a zero'd out drive. Now if you choose to damage it, that's fine, but you're essentially done at this point.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:43 AM on April 6, 2011

Shooting them with a pistol works for me.
posted by okbye at 8:45 AM on April 6, 2011

I was going to suggest DBAN also. I've used it a couple of times to clean friends' laptops that were resold. No need to get a drill out. Link to DBAN
posted by eatcake at 8:49 AM on April 6, 2011

I think if you can swing a hammer in proximity to the top of the hard drive itself, using the hammer to drive a screwdriver through the lid of the drive and into the platter a few times should do the trick. The platters should shatter.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:51 AM on April 6, 2011

Get the drive out of the case. Borrow a drill and drill through it and/or take it to a shooting range and ask someone to use it as a target. Then put it in a drawer with lots of magnets. Then set the house on fire. Ok, the last one is overkill.
posted by theora55 at 9:35 AM on April 6, 2011

Our community just had an e-recycling day. The company took most electronic items for free, but charged $5.00 to recycle hard drives. The offered certified destruction of all hard drive data for this price.

Checking our your profile, you may want to consider itGreen - Oxford computer disposal.

Bonus--you're recycling any components that are recyclable!
posted by Kronur at 9:38 AM on April 6, 2011

Get a cardboard box and line it with a plastic trash bag. Place the computer in the box, then fill it with concrete.
posted by orme at 1:03 PM on April 6, 2011

Or you can do what I do. Get a Torx driver set. They are not expensive. Unscrew the cover to the drive and dismantle it. You get some pretty shiny platters and a couple of neodymium magnets. I have literally hundreds of platters and drive magnets. They can be fun. Just be careful if they are the bigger kind. And keep them away from other forms of magnetic media.
posted by Splunge at 5:22 PM on April 6, 2011

Please excuse me for posting right after myself. But it always makes me chuckle when people underestimate the average hard disk drive. Those platters can indeed be damaged by simple things like a drop from a height. But only if they are actually reading or writing at the time. At all other times the R/W heads are parked so as to avoid just that thing.

And even then they will only damage, not destroy, a small area of the platter. OTOH the people that can get information off of a drive are amazing. They have amazing tools and can even get information that has been overwritten by random characters. I should know. I worked for the NYC DOI and we did that stuff.

I was only a college intern but I worked with guys that pretty much created the Computer Forensics Division. They used a lot of tools. Some were developed along with the guys I worked for.

Sometimes we sent HDs out to companies that charge thousands of dollars to strip ones and zeroes from damaged hard drives. By hand. One at a damn time.

This included drives that were burned and blown up.

If the platter is in a reasonable condition, they could get something off of it. Sometimes enough to prosecute drug dealers, murderers or pedophiles.

Unless you are a criminal of some sort, drilling a hard drive is the way to go. The holes, you see, don't allow the drive to spin and all that. ;-)

If you have files that are the sort that a spy or a drug lord might have, total dismantling and physical destruction of the platters is the way to go. I'm guessing that the OP could use the dismantling or drilling thing.

I was going to suggest Thermite as well. And contrary to popular belief, you can make it with stuff you have lying around the house. And I'm not going into detail there. You can Google it if you want.

OP, borrow or rent a drill. Problem solved.
posted by Splunge at 6:35 PM on April 6, 2011

Sorry for the derail, but immediately above, Splunge wrote, "They have amazing tools and can even get information that has been overwritten by random characters. I should know. I worked for the NYC DOI and we did that stuff."

Citation, please.

Recovery of bits out of file slack and unallocated space is one thing, recovery of the bits after they have been overwritten is a totally different issue.

I believe that Peter Guttman's 1996 USENIX paper, which posited that only 95% of the signal is actually overwritten, presented a hypothetical situation. As far as I am aware, there is no law enforcement tool or tool available to private industry that actually accomplishes recovery of overwritten data.

(Even Guttman himself acknowledged that sectors overwritten on modern (post-2003 drives) could not be read by the techniques he described. See this 2005 Bugtraq post quoting Guttman.)

Daniel Feenberg of the NBER has called any implementations of Guttman's theory an "urban legend".

I work in this area and advise my clients on these issues. I have seen some pretty amazing data recovery done by and for law enforcement but no one I know is selling this service or even claims to be able to do it.

Of course I have heard whispered third-hand chitchat or guys who claim to know someone at NSA who said something about the German BKA having some capacity or whatnot. At a conference, I heard a state trooper boasting about being able to do this, and would have LOVED to cross-examine him; let's just say I felt he did not have any of the usual indicia of being a credible source.

Bottom line, if the three-letter agencies stumbled across Bin Laden's laptop in a cave someplace, yeah, they might be breaking out the magnetic force microscopes. I strongly, strongly doubt the likelihood of anyone short of a national intelligence agency having the capability (and even then have my doubts), and I regard claims of this capacity as urban legend or something you tell to impress the interns or pick up chicks in a bar.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 10:33 AM on April 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

Heh, you guys are creative. I'm still listening. I'm going to mull this over and let you know the best place to get thermite tell you my decision and how it went. Back in a while.
posted by tel3path at 4:22 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

When you're trying to figure out a security question like this, you need to look at what sort of threats you're trying to protect against. Sure, if the drive is full of secret information you want to defend against intelligence agencies or well funded corporate espionage, you might want to more fully destroy the drive. But how much effort do you expect someone to put into stealing "bank details and investment account details and all that sort of rot"? Your most plausible threat here would be someone dumpster diving your old HD just in case they could find anything interesting, in which case just mangling the connectors or throwing it out covered in nasty garbage is probably enough.
posted by JiBB at 11:04 PM on April 10, 2011

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