Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Data Destruction

It has been a while since I've posted anything here, but I finally came across something worthy.

At our office we periodically need to get rid of old, useless computers. We don't want to run any risk of any private data escaping on their hard drives, so for quite a while we just tossed the hard drives in a box and kept them. We knew that eventually we'd have to deal with them, but that is why we have the word 'Later' in our language, right?

Later arrived, and it was time to deal with the pile. We wiped quite a few of them by connecting them four at a time to a PC and running a disk wiping program. This worked reasonably well for the drives that worked and were reasonably fast. For many drives, however, the effort to get them running
and wait while they were wiped just didn't seem to be worth it.

Some of my staff had been kicking around the idea of just drilling holes in the drives to render them unusable. We even did a little test with a couple, and being largely aluminum, drilling worked pretty well. Since we had a pretty large pile we decided to pick up a cheap drill press and get to work. We quickly found that many of the old drives had stainless steel covers that were a chore to drill through. The guy doing the drilling was spending a fair amount of time at it, and was stinking the place up with hot steel and oil (not the usual office sounds and smells).

So, I decided to experiment with another option: the hard drive firing squad.

I set aside a couple dozen drives and put the drilling on hold for a while. Then this past weekend I was able to visit my dad (who has the fire power) and we headed to a gravel pit to see what we could do. We experimented with stacking the drives so that we could possibly destroy more than one with a shot, and had pretty good luck. Here are some pictures of the damage:

This sample was shot with a .243 caliber rifle from the front. Not only did we get a nice little hole, but with the .243 we could pretty easily pierce a second drive that was stacked behind this one. If you are familiar with what a hard drive looks like inside (or if you peek ahead to see one with the cover removed) you'll know that the platters that store the data are round disks located toward an end of the enclosure. We wanted to damage those platters. To get the job done we had to hit the end of the drive where the platters are located, and we didn't want to get too tangled up with the drive motor at the center of the platters, or else we wouldn't get through as many.

I have to commend my Dad on having his rifles sighted in perfectly. While it wasn't a surprise that he could hit these targets from our safe distance of 50 yards or so, it did surprise me a bit that I had about the same luck he had. We were able to destroy 25 drives with just 13 shots. Given what rifle rounds cost, this ended up being faster and cheaper than our drilling process, and quite a bit cheaper than a commercial shredder service. Plus, it was a LOT more fun.

We shot most of the drives with the .243, but then had to try out something a bit bigger, just to see how it worked.

Here are some drives that we shot with a .270 caliber rifle (which doesn't sound that much bigger than a .243, but the .270 has much larger shells with more powder and the bullets are a fair amount heavier than the .243):

And here is a sample that we barely managed to hit (twice) with the .243 before finishing it off with the .270:

And, just to let you see what these look like inside (and to show what sort of damage is done to the disk platter themselves), here is one that I removed the cover from:
This one actually got shot a few times. You can see the smaller dents in the platter - these were made with a .22 caliber rifle, just to see if that was capable of destroying the drive. It probably did well enough, but we had to make sure when we had the larger rifles out. I don't recall for certain, but I think the larger hole was made with the .243 after having gone through another drive first. The ones at the rear of a stack were a bit messier, as the bullet had mushroomed quite a bit on the first drive. In fact, with the .270 we may have been able to do more than four in a stack if we clamped them in place, but with them just stood in the sand the impact on the front of the stack tended to knock the ones in the rear out of the way.

Given how successful and fun this was, I've retired the drill press and have set aside the rest of the drives for one more visit to the gravel pit. I am a bit sad that we probably won't be adding any more drives to the destruction pile as we are now wiping them as we retire the computer. But, we don't really want to be destroying drives that may be of some use. As you may be able to see on the labels of the drives shown, the ones we destroyed were old SCSI drives in the quarter to half gigabyte size range - not something that had any chance of ever being used again. Plus, it is a bit hard to justify rifle ammunition on a computer support services budget.


wunelle said...

Ha! Too fabulous!

You computer geeks have all the fun. I actually can think of few things more fun than getting to blow the shit out of old computer equipment with a hunting rifle. I mean, what could be cooler? It's the five-year-old in me.

It would be interesting to see what a variety of calibers and bullet types do to these drives. Buckshot would almost certainly not penetrate; but a .22--great velocity but not much energy--probably would. And what of metal-jacketed bullets? Jamie Hyneman (of Mythbusters fame) shoots a .50 caliber regularly at stuff. You'd think it would go through about 10 drives, but the huge energy causes the bullets to disintegrate.

Hopefully I'll be around for your next outing!

dbackdad said...

That's awesome! Fixing computers (and disposing of them) is my gig. Perhaps I need to add some firearms to my maintenance toolkit.

Fusion said...

Heh, and to think last time out in my friends vacant rock quarry we were just shooting tin cans, water bottles, and missed clay skeet targets... Could have started our own little data erasure business instead ;)

CyberKitten said...

We do ours the old fashioned way - we send them off to be melted down. [laughs] Shooting them up with rifles sounds *so* much more fun!

Jeffy said...

Next weekend, when I get to finish off the rest of my pile of drives, I'll have to try some more experiments. If anyone has any specific suggestions feel free to pass them along (I take requests, but I don't have a .50 caliber at my disposal).

We did take several shots with a .22, but the bullets didn't fully pierce the cover of the drives. They did mess the drive up pretty badly, but not quite the level of destruction that I was hoping for.

Next time I'll try the .22 fired at the back side of the drive, so the bullets can hopefully penetrate the aluminum side and pierce the platters before getting stopped by the steel cover on the front.

We did try some rounds that had more jacketed bullets, but I don't recall which ones were which. We weren't really taking the time to be very scientific about the whole process (not to mention the large variability in the results depending on where the bullet hit).

If I get anything new worth passing along I'll be sure to get more photos.

shrimplate said...

This technique also works on the Constitution.