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How to safely destroy your old internal hard drives

(Editor’s note: Please observe safety precautions before using power tools mentioned in this article. Author Eilenberg explains ways of making certain no one can access data on discarded hard drives using various methods to physically disable them.)

This is the year I get rid of my household hazardous and E-waste. I have fluorescent bulbs, too many dead rechargeable batteries to count and 7 abandoned internal hard drives. These are the SATA 3.5” drives that many of us own and have accumulated. They may have had head crashes, corruption or just been pulled from Mac towers that have long since been upgraded. If I don’t do this now, they will likely be at my posthumous estate sale or tossed in a dumpster.

My Google search on “how to destroy a hard drive” led to some violent and dangerous suggestions. Some advocate acid, others sledgehammers, ovens or fireplace, degaussing and electrocution. Others have shot them with bullets or with a nail gun. More meticulous YouTube posters opened the housing and removed the data platers, treating them to a saw, drill or grinding wheel. In summary, these drastic, time-consuming methods could lead to serious personal injury and I’d venture to guess that most people would be discouraged and do nothing.

I find it ironic that these drives are encased in a strong metal housing. Drive one over in your car? No apparent damage, but a bit of internal dust could lead to a head crash and lost data!

These drives are mechanical and the 0s and 1s are written magnetically. The platters spin smoothly at 1000s of RPMs with the read/write head floating just above the platter surface on a cushion of air. When not in use, these heads are parked off to the side. Drop one when in use and that could be the end. Truly, this is a tenuous situation and crashes happen with regularity, so why should it be so hard to intentionally kill a hard drive?

A: Magnetic data platters are just under this cover.  B: Connector pins are on this end C: One of the many Torx screws securing the top cover.

I have a home security system. Inside my house, I have lots of sensitive documents and personal data. My car has a security system too. Both could be broken into, but the locks and alarms will hopefully discourage a would-be thief, sending him off to an easier robbery. I believe the same idea holds true for abandoned hard drives.

Full disclosure: I am not being stalked by paparazzi and am not running for public office. There is no soon-to-be ex-wife’s private-eye looking for dirt (that I know of). I have a regular job and am a professional level photographer. In other words, I don’t think there are data thieves rifling through my trash. My hard drives are now destroyed “enough” and out of the house. If found, no one is going to attempt data retrieval and I was not injured in the process. Here is what I did to destroy my hard drives.

For the destruction of the first hard drive, I wanted to see how hard it was to open the case and remove the data platters. I went to a hardware store and bought a Torx screwdriver set. Seven of the eight cover screws (two concealed by a plastic decal) came out well and one stripped out. I drilled out the stubborn one and off came the cover. The data platters were also held in with multiple additional Torx screws. Again, all but one came out. This drive had four platters in a stack. The platters were study mirrored metal and I crammed in a screwdriver to bend/deform and scratch them. This was a tedious and inelegant process, but mission accomplished. It was neither quick nor was it satisfying.

Inside a hard drive. A: Top data platter  B: Speck of dust sufficient to cause a head crash. C: Read/Write arm parked in orange “garage”. D: Connectors

 

I noted that the data platters were on the opposite side of the connection pins with the logic board between the two. For the next hard drive, I placed it on a wooden plank and drilled through the metal case and through the platters in two spots, then turned the drill on the fragile connector pins. I used a sharp drill bit made of Hi-Molybdenum steel. I could feel each platter being penetrated. It was fast, easy and most satisfying.

When I was done with the drive, it could reinstall it, as is. It would have to be taken apart. The platters would have to be removed and cleaned. A read/write head would encounter the drill holes and be destroyed. Is there still data on the platters? The answer is yes. Is there any reasonable chance that someone combing a garbage can or town dump for social security numbers, passwords and bank accounts will be successful? Not a chance!

SATA hard drive. A: Drilled connection pins  B: Two holes drilled through the stacked data platters

Safety always

I wore safety glasses and gloves for the work. I recommend you follow the safety guidlines in your power tools manuals. By the way, Home Depot recycles batteries and fluorescent light bulbs through a program called call2recycle.

 

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