We’ll break down what parts of the hard drive that need to go and the best way to destroy a hard drive

Your hard drive is very much the information center of your computer. It’s where your operating system (OS) can be found, and your personal data is stored. If you use your computer for more than general web surfing, then it means your hard drive is likely carrying some sensitive information. This can be personal data, financial information, or maybe even health-related info.

Needless to say, this is the type of info you don’t want it falling into a stranger’s hands. This is why destroying a hard drive is essential in some cases. Obviously, you may not want to destroy a hard drive if you’re planning to sell or donate the computer for re-use. But if you’re selling your computer’s parts or junking it, you’ll want to destroy that sucker. Why? Because even if you delete files with your handy recycle bin, they’re not truly gone — they’re just no longer easily accessible. This means you still have to take extra steps to ensure that the data is no longer recoverable.

Well, not to worry, we’ve got you covered. Read on to learn a little bit about a hard drive, its anatomy in terms of its components (which will help when destroying it), and the best way to destroy a hard drive.

What Is a Hard Drive?

Before you can understand the best way to destroy a hard drive, you first need to understand what exactly it is. A hard drive, hard disk drive, or HDD is a device that stores data and has been around for 50+ years. This should not be confused with a solid-state drive, which is newer and has fewer parts but also stores data. (However, some people do use the terms interchangeably, which can make things a bit confusing.)

A hard drive is considered a non-volatile memory device, which means the data that’s stored is saved whether the computer has power or not. Another example of a non-volatile memory device would be a ROM (read-only memory).

A volatile memory device, on the other hand, is just the opposite in that it only stores data while the device is running. An example of a volatile memory device would be RAM (random access memory).

Where You Can Find Your Device’s Hard Drive

Powered by the computer’s power supply unit (PSU), hard drives can be found in the computer’s drive bay. You can store just about anything on a hard drive, but maybe the most important thing that’s stored there is the operating system. Operating systems are essential for computers because they are, basically, what connects the dots between user requests and computer functions.

Other items that would be stored on a hard drive include software, apps, and files of any sort. Files could include photos, documents, videos, and so on.

Anatomy of a Hard Drive – The Four Core Parts

There are many parts to a hard drive, but there are four core parts you need to know about when you want to destroy one. The four parts are:

1. Platters

These circular discs are where your computer stores your data. They are made out of aluminum, glass, or ceramic and are coated with a magnetic surface to ensure data remains there. Platters use sectors and tracks to keep data neatly arranged. The number of platters in a hard drive depends on how big the hard drive is. There are typically one to five platters per computer.

2. Spindle

Platters need to spin to write and read data from the hard drive. The spindle, which is what the platter is placed upon, is what rotates the platter.

3. Read/Write Arm (AKA the Actuator Arm)

That magnet surface I mentioned on the platter — well, it needs to convert into an electric current to read and write data. By controlling the read/write head (or sometimes just referred to as the “head”), the read/write arm helps create the electric current and ensures the data flows.

4. Actuator

Just as the spindle rotates the platter and the arm controls the read/write head that creates the current from the platter’s surface, you need something to control the read-write arm. Right? This is what the actuator does. It ensures that the arm and head are where they need to be.

Best way to destroy a hard drive graphic: An illustration that breaks down the different components of a hard drive and uses labels to name them.
Image source: toshost.com. This illustration depicts the four core parts of a hard drive and a few other key parts.

Why Would You Want to Destroy a Hard Drive?

Well, I’m sure after reading about all the nitty-gritty details of what’s in a hard drive and the incredible finer points of how that device creates such amazing magic, you might just want to smash your head against it… Or, maybe, that’s just me.

All kidding aside, you do not want your hard drive — and the data it stores — to fall into the wrong hands. As I mentioned, you can save anything from financial records, contact info, personal info (like your social security number), private photos, and so on.

So, if you were going to sell your computer parts or toss the whole thing in the trash (Note: don’t do that, there are safer and more environmentally-friendly ways to dispose of your computer), you’re first going to want to destroy the hard drive and all that personal data. Or maybe you’re an undercover FBI agent who is undercover in the Russian mafia and your cover is in danger of being compromised. So, you need to get rid of those darned files before someone ousts you! That’d be wild!

Either way, regardless of which reason why you need to destroy your hard drive, the important takeaway is that you don’t want that hard drive ending up in the wrong hands. That means we have come to the fun part — destruction time!

The Best Way to Destroy a Hard Drive

There are few options here. The first isn’t technically “destroying” a hard drive, it is more like “wiping” it. Doesn’t sound as fun but it is less involved. You can use a program like DBAN to wipe the drive. You will get the program on a floppy disk, CD, or USB drive and you simply run it once one of those is inserted in your computer. However, the program doesn’t guarantee to completely wipe your hard drive. DBAN even states on their website that “there’s no guarantee your data is completely sanitized across the entire drive.”

Basically, there still might be “ghost” memory that is recoverable by someone who knows what they’re doing. Here’s a great video that explains what happens when you delete data from your hard drive.

You can also consider a hard drive destruction service. These companies typically exist to serve large companies that need mass quantities of paper, files, devices, etc. shredded or destroyed on a regular basis. However, if you are looking to destroy a home computer hard drive, many of them offer a one-off destruction service. If the hard drive destruction company only provides on-sight service than the cost might get more expensive than you’re willing to pay, because you’re paying for someone to come to you.

However, if there is a local shop that offers this service, going to them will keep the price down. A simple Google search will let you know what hard drive destruction services are local to you. Many of these services are eco friendly as well and will recycle your old hard drive.

The final option is to physically destroy the hard drive yourself. Going back to the anatomy of a hard drive section, if you remember there are a lot of parts that do a lot of things but at the center of it all is the platters. This is where the data is stored. So, you can toss your hard drive around all you want, but if the platters are still there, it means your data is still there.

So, here are a few ways to go about physically destroying a hard drivet:

1. The Surgical Option

This method requires a bit more patience. You will need to disassemble the hard drive, dislodge the platters, and then END THEIR EXSITENCE. This would consist of two things.

  1. Place the platters between neodymium magnets to fry the data.
  2. Grind them down using something like sandpaper. If you remember, they have a magnetic surface, you will need to just grind/sand that part off to END THEIR EXSITENCE.

I recommend wearing safety goggle for the following two hard drive destruction methods.

2. The Spike Method

Grab a hammer and a nail. Proceed to hammer the nail directly into the platters. Problem solved. It’s good to apply this technique to multiple areas of the platters since data is stored along different areas of the surface.

3. The Smash Sandwich

This one is even simpler than the Spike Method. Lose the nail, keep the hammer and smash the @#$% out of that hard drive. Smash that thing to pieces like you’re channeling your inner Hulk and it won’t work anymore. Poof, data’s gone.

Okay, now you know some recommended ways to effectively (and safely) destroy your hard drive. But what are some of the ways you shouldn’t go about doing so?

What’s NOT the Best Way to Destroy a Hard Drive

For either being too dangerous or not effective, below are a few ways to NOT destroy a hard drive…

1. Dunking It Under Water

While this process may render some of the parts useless, it likely won’t destroy the platters. Therefore, it won’t destroy your data and that data may be recoverable.

2. Setting It on Fire

Yeah, I don’t recommend this. I mean, while it sounds like a blast to a pyro, it also can be dangerous for those involved. There are also some not-so-fun fumes involved. Yeah… no.

3. Dropping It from a High Place

Once again, doing this may break some parts but that darn magnetic surface will still be there. And so long as those platters are spinnable, it means your data is potentially recoverable.

4. Microwaving It

Just no. Don’t ruin your microwave or risk knock out the power in your building…

5. Pouring Acid Over It

Needless to say, this could be incredibly dangerous — especially with the fumes that are involved. I’m not the guy recommending this one. Just smash it, dude.

For additional resources and guidance for the best way to destroy a hard drive (or sanitize media), check out these resources that offer guidance in terms of compliance:

Best Way to Destroy a Hard Drive — A Final Word

Hard drive matter is scattered around the floor. Your microwave is still working. You got a lot of anger out of your system. That means we’re done here. Just remember these last few tidbit as I bid you fare well:

  • Do not give your hard drive away (especially if you’re undercover FBI) as it most likely contains sensitive information.
  • Properly destroying a hard drive can help your organization or business in terms of PCI DSS compliance and compliance with NIST and ISO 27001.
  • The platters are what you want to make sure is destroyed as they are what actually stores the data.
  • Wear goggles and be careful to not smash your thumb. Ouch…

Welcome to Savvy Security, a blog focused on providing practical cybersecurity advice for website owners and small businesses. Our team brings you the latest news, best practices and tips you can use to protect your business...without a multi-million dollar budget or 24/7 security teams.