Posts Tagged ‘data destruction’

QotW #18: How can we destroy data on a hard drive?

2012-02-16 by roryalsop. 0 comments

Rather than focus on a specific question this week, we have 9 questions related to the destruction of data, 5 of which are specifically interested in destroying hard drives, as in this modern age where everything is recorded, there are good reasons for ensuring data is deleted when required.

So this post will concentrate on destroying the the drive itself. For the deletion of data from a storage device, have a look at our blog post for Question of the week number 4: How can you reliably wipe data from a storage device?

Matthew Doucette asked simply: How do you destroy an old hard drive?

To which Scott Pack produced the following incredibly detailed answer:

When it comes to drive destruction you typically see one of two main fields:

  1. Disk Degaussing
  2. Physical Destruction


Degaussing used to be the norm, but I am not such a big fan. On the plus side it is fast, you’ll normally just dump the disks on a conveyor belt and watch them get fed through the device. The problem is auditability. Since the circuitry is rendered wobbly, you won’t be able to do a spot check of the drives and verify that the data is gone. It is possible, with some level of probability unknown to me, that data could still exist on the platters. Retrieving the data would, without question, be difficult, but the fact still remains that you cannot demonstrate the data is actually gone. As such, most companies now will actually be doing physical destruction.

Physical Destruction

At the low end, say a small box of drives at a time, you’ll have hard drive crushers. They’re often pneumatic presses that deform the platters beyond useful recognition. At the risk of supporting a specific product, I have personally used this product from eDR. It works well, and is very cathartic.

At a larger scale, say dozens or hundreds of disks, you’ll find large industrial shredders. They operate just like a paper shredder, but are designed to process much stiffer equipment. The mangled bits of metal that are left over are barely identifiable as hard drives.

At an even larger scale you can start looking at incinerators that will melt the drives down to unidentifiable lumps of slag. Since most electronics can produce some rather scary fumes and airborne particulates, I would not recommend doing this on you own. No, this is not a good use of your chiminea.

Manual Dis-assembly

If you are dealing with one or two drives at a time, then simple dis-assembly might be sufficient. Most drives these days are largely held together with torx screws, and will come apart with varying levels of difficulty. Simply remove the top cover, remove the platters from the central spindle. Taking a pocket knife, nail file, screwdriver, whatever, have fun scoring both surfaces of each platter. Then dispose of the materials appropriately. I cannot speak to how recoverable the data is afterwards, but it is probably sufficient. The biggest thing to keep in mind is that while most desktop hard drive platters are metal, some are glass. The glass ones shatter quite extravagantly.

Additional Considerations

Before you decide on a destruction method, make sure to identify what kind of data is stored on each device and treat it appropriately. There may be regulatory or legal requirements for information disposal depending on what data is stored on the disk. As an example, see section 8-306 of DoD 5220.22-M.

For hard drive destruction, DoD 5220.22-M section 8-306 recommends: “Disintegrate, incinerate, pulverize, shred, or melt”

All that being said, performing a single pass zero wipe is probably sufficient for your purposes. Modern research indicates that modern hard drives are largely immune to the “magnetic memory” problem we used to see on magnetic tape. I would never bother doing anything more on a household drive unless the drive itself was exhibiting failures

Ryan M asked a very similar question – What is the best method of retiring hard drives?

And Scott also gave these 2 excellent points in his answer:

Electrical Scrambling

In the olden days when you had a room packed with tape there were few things better than a big honkin’degausser for making sure that you knew what left the room. As hard drives supplanted tape, their use simply got transferred to the new medium. The biggest advantage to using a degausser to take care of hard drives is speed. Just pass a box through the unit, ignore the jiggling in your fillings, and walk away with clean drives. The downside is the lack of ability to audit data destruction. As discussed in the Wikipedia article, once a hard drive is degaussed, the drive is mechanically unusable. As such, one cannot spot check the drive to ensure cleanliness. In theory the platters could be relocated to a new device and we cannot state, categorically, that the data will not be accessible.

Wanton Destruction

This is without question my favorite. Not only because we demonstrate, without question, that the data is gone, but the process is very cathartic. I have been known to take an hour or so, dip into the “To Be Destroyed” bin, and manually disassemble drives. For modern hard drives all you need is a torx set and time (possibly pliers). While one will stock up on their magnet collection, this method of destruction is very time consuming. Many companies have developed equipment specifically for hard drive destruction en-masse. These range from large industrial shredders to single unit crushers such as this beauty from eDR. I have personally used that particular crusher, and highly recommend it to any Information Security professional who has had a bit of a rough day.

I’m thinking if I ever need to destroy hard drives, I’ll either blow them up / give them to my kids / use them for target practice or ask Scott to have fun with them.

Dan Beale points out that exactly what approach you take depends on:

  • how sensitive is the information
  • how serious are the attackers
  • do you need to follow a protocol
  • do you need to persuade other people the data has gone

Auditability is essential if you are susceptible to regulations around data retention and destruction, and for most organisations this will be essential around regulations such as the Data Protection Act 1998 (UK), GLB or HIPAA (US) and others.

QotW #4: How can you reliably wipe data from a storage device?

2011-08-03 by Thomas Pornin. 1 comments

Today we investigate the problem of disposing of hardware storage devices (say, hard disks) which may contain sensitive data. The question which prompted this discussion “Is it enough to only wipe a flash drive once” is about Flash disks (SSD) and received some very good answers; here, we will try to look at the wider picture.

Confidentiality Issues and How to Avoid Them

Storage devices grow old; at some point we want to get rid of them, either because they broke down and need to be replaced, or because they became too small with regards to what we want to do with them. A storage device does not shrink over time, but our needs increase. Quite some time ago, I was sharing some disk space with about one hundred co-students, and the disk offered a hefty 120 megabytes. At that time, a colorful GIF picture was considered to be the top of technology. Today, we take for granted that we can store 2-hour long HD videos on a cellphone. The increase in disk space shows no sign of slowing down, so we have a steady stream of old disks (or USB sticks or SD cards or even ZIP/Jaz cartridges for the old timers — I will not delve into floppy disks) to dispose of. The problem is that all these pieces of hardware have been used quite liberally to store data, possibly confidential data. For the home user, think about the browser cookies, the saved passwords, the cryptographic private keys… In a business context, just about any data element could be of value for competitors.

This is a matter of confidentiality. There are two generic ways to deal with it: encryption, and destruction.

Disk Encryption

Disk encryption is about transforming data in a way which is reversible only with the knowledge of a given secret short-sized element called a key. We are talking about symmetric encryption here; the key is a simple sequence of, say, 128 bits chosen at random. The confidentiality issue is not totally obliterated, only severely reduced: supposedly, it is easier to deal with the secrecy of a sequence of 128 bits than that of 100 GB worth of data. Encryption can be done either by the disk itself, by the operating system, or by the application.

Application-based encryption is limited to what the application can control. For instance, it may have to fight a bit with the OS about virtual memory (that’s pure memory from the point of view of the application, but the OS is prone to write it to the disk anyway). Also, most applications do not have any encryption feature, and modifying all of them is out of the question (not even counting the closed-source ones, that’s just too much work).

OS disk encryption is more thorough, since it can be applied on the complete disk for all files from all applications. It has a few drawbacks, though:

  • The computer must still be able to boot up; in particular, to read from the disk the code which is used to decrypt data. So there must be at least an unencrypted area on the disk. This can cause some system administration headaches.
  • Performance may suffer, for an internal hard disk. An x86 Core2 CPU at 2.4 GHz can encrypt about 160 MB/s with AES (that’s what my PC does with the well-known OpenSSL crypto library): not only do some SSD go faster than that, I also have other things to do with my CPU (my OS is multitasking).
  • For external media (USB sticks, Flash cards…), there can be interoperability issues. There is no well-established standard on disk encryption. You could transport some appropriate software on the media itself but most places will not let you install applications as easily.

Encryption on the hardware itself is easier, but you do not really know if the drive does it properly. Also, the drive must keep the key in some way, and you want it to “forget” that key when the media is decommissioned. As Jesper’s answer describes, good encrypted disks keep the key in NVRAM (i.e. RAM with a battery) and can be instructed to forget the key, but this can prove difficult if the disk is broken: if it does not respond to commands anymore, you cannot really be sure that the NVRAM got blanked.

So while encryption is the theoretically appropriate way to go, it is not complete (you still have to manage the confidentiality of the key) and, in practice, it is not easy. Most of all, it works only if it is applied from day one: encryption can do nothing about data which was written before encryption was envisioned at all. So let’s see what can be done to destroy data.

Data Wiping

Wiping out data is a popular method; but popular does not necessarily mean efficient. The traditional wiping patterns rely on the idea that each data bit will be written exactly over the bit which was at the same logical emplacement on the disk: this was mostly true in 1996, but technology has evolved. Today’s hard disks do not have “track railings” to guide the read/write heads; instead, they use the data itself as guide. The net result is that the new data may be physically off the previous one by a small bit; the old data is still readable “on the edge”.

Also, modern hard disks do not have visibly bad sectors. Bad sectors still exist, but the disk transparently substitutes good sectors instead of bad sectors. This happens dynamically: when a disk writes some data on a sector and detects that the write operation did not go well, then it will allocate a new good sector from its spare area and do the write again there. From the point of view of the operating system, this is invisible; the only consequence is that the write took a few more milliseconds than could have been expected. However, the data has been written to the bad sector (admittedly, one or two bits of it may be wrong, but this leaves more than 4000 genuine bits) and since the sector is now marked as “bad”, it is forever inaccessible from the host computer. No amount of wiping can do anything about that.

On Flash, the same issue arises, multiplied a thousand times. Flash memory works by “blocks” (a few dozen kilobytes) in which two operations can be done:

  • changing a bit from value 1 to value 0;
  • erasing a whole block: all the bit blocks are set to 1.

A given block will endure only that many “erase” operations, so Flash devices use wear leveling techniques, in which write operations are scattered all about the place. The “Flash Translation Layer” is a standard wear leveling algorithm, designed to operate smoothly with a FAT filesystem. The wear leveling means that if you try to overwrite a file, the wiping pattern will be most of the time written elsewhere. Moreover, some blocks can be declared as “bad” and remapped to spare blocks, in a way similar to what magnetic hard disks do (only more often). So some data blocks just linger, forever unreachable from any software wiping.

The basic conclusion is that wiping does not work against a determined attacker. Simply overwriting the whole partition with zeros is enough to deter an attacker who will simply plug the disk in a computer: logically, a single write is enough to “remove” the data, and by working on the partition instead of files, you avoid any filesystem shenanigans. But if your enemies are so cheap that they will limit themselves to the logical layer, then you are lucky indeed.

@nealmcb’s question, How can I reliably erase all information on a hard drive? sparked some excellent discussion including NIST’s guidelines for Media Sanitisation.

Media Destruction

Without encryption (does not work for data which is already there) and data wiping (does not work reliably, or at all), the remaining solution is physical destruction. It is not that easy, though; a good sledgehammer swing, for instance, though satisfying, is not very effective towards data destruction. After all, this is a hard disk. To destroy its contents, you have to remove the cover (there are often many screws, some of which hidden, and glue, and rivets in some models) and then extract the platters, which are quite rigid disks. A simple office shredder will choke on those (although they would easily munch through older floppy disks). The magnetic layer is not thick, so mechanical abrasion may do the trick: use a sander or a grinder. Otherwise, dipping the platters in concentrated sulfuric acid should work.

For Flash devices, things are simpler: that’s mostly silicon with small bits of copper or aluminium, and a plastic cover. Just burn it.

Bottom-line: media destruction requires resources. In a business environment, this could be a system administrator task, but it will involve extra manpower, safety issues (seriously, a geeky system administrator with access to an acid cauldron or a furnace, isn’t it a bit scary ?) and possibly environmental considerations.


Data security must be thought throughout the complete life cycle of storage devices. Whether you go crypto or physical, you must put some thought and resources into it. Most people will simply store old disks and hope for the problem to get away on its own accord.