How to securely erase hard drives (HDDs) and solid state drives (SSDs)

Got a pile of old drives that you need to wipe before sending them to Silicon Heaven? Or do you want to wipe a drive in a computer that you are selling or giving away? Here are some tips and tricks to help you get the job done.

Hard drives: Safe ways to dump your data

Got a pile of old drives that you need to wipe before sending them to Silicon Heaven? Or do you want to wipe a drive in a computer that you are selling or giving away? Here are some tips and tricks to help you get the job done.

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Since hard drives (HDDs) and solid state drives (SSDs) need different handling, I'm going to cover them separately here.

HDDs

There are three approaches you can take to securely wiping hard drives.

Software

The cheapest way to tackle a pile of hard drives is to wipe them with a software eraser. I warn you though, it's not quick, and it won't work on defective disks.

My tool of choice for wiping drives is Darik's Boot And Nuke. It's free and does an excellent job of wiping drives clean.

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To use it, you'll need to create a wipe CD or DVD, then hook up the drives you want to wipe to a PC, and run the software. Be careful not to inadvertently wipe a drive containing data you need, because that will make your life suck. I suggest using a spare PC or, failing that, disconnecting all the data drives from the system you use, just in case. You can do this since you'll be booting up off the Boot And Nuke disc and not the internal drive.

I recommend that you read and thoroughly familiarize yourself with the documentation for this software, because if you take your eye off the ball and wipe the wrong drive, your data is gone.

Hardware

If you don't feel like taking the software approach, another method you can take is to employ a bespoke hardware tool to do the job. At this point though things start to get a little expensive, but it is faster and does mean that you don't have to dedicate a PC to the wiping operation.

The tool I use is Wiebetech's Drive eRazer Ultra . It's a fast, reliable, standalone solution to wiping hard drives and deleting everything. You hook the drive up to it, tap a few buttons, and Drive eRazer Ultra takes care of the rest.

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I've used this tool to wipe dozens of drives with great success. It's an expensive solution for sure -- the eRazer Ultra starts at $200 -- but if you have a lot of drives to wipe, it's well worth it.

The hands-on method

OK, what do you do if you want to wipe drives that have died or become defective in some way with data still on them that now cannot be wiped? You could take a chance that since the drive is dead, the data is gone, but you got to plan on the drive falling into the hands of someone cleverer than you (or someone who has more time and patience).

Here's where the hands-on method comes into play. This method also works great if you just want to destroy drives before you take them to the recycling plant.

You will need:

  • A hammer (I use my trusty 32oz "fine adjustment" hammer)
  • A thick nail (a 6-inch nail will do fine)
  • Thick gloves -- because you're going to be hammering that nail through the drive using the hammer, and hammers are magnetically attracted to thumbs
  • A block of wood -- so you don't nail the drive to your floor (it's preferable to do this outside if you can)
  • Eye protection -- you've only got a maximum of two to start with, so it's silly to take chances!

Now you apply brute force. Ideally you want to put a nail through the platters of the drive, going all the way through (it's actually not as hard as it sounds). I aim for the spot marked by the red X:

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By aiming for this spot, you not only smash the platters holding the data, but you also mangle the read/write heads. If you're really paranoid, put a nail through the green stars, which will put more holes in the platters.

This is a very effective method of destroying drives, and it's also a lot of fun, not to mention a great way to relieve stress!

SSDs

With solid-state drives, things can get very complicated, and I could write reams about TRIM commands and garbage collection and so on. The problem is things get convoluted, which is when mistakes happen and your precious baby pictures or work project gets deleted. With that in mind, I'm going to keep things simple.

Erase using manufacturer utilities

One way to erase SSDs is to use the manufacturer utilities. Here are some links to get you started.

If you have a drive from a different source, go check out their website.

Encrypt the whole drive

One of the easiest ways is to encrypt the entire drive with a complex passphrase. On Windows, you can use something like VeraCrypt, while on Mac, you can use the built-in FileVault utility, and you're done. No passphrase, no data.

You can then format the drive, from which point it should be sterile and ready to accept a reload of the data.

PARTED Magic

Another way to do this is to use a software tool called PARTED Magic. Rather than tell you how to use this, here's a video showing it in action.

While PARTED Magic is not free (price starts at a reasonable $9), it is a very effective tool, and one of the best I've used for wiping SSDs.

The hands-on method

If the drive is dead, or you just want to get rid of it in a hurry and don't want a functioning drive at the end of it, then you can take a hammer to the SSD or flash drive.

One thing to bear in mind is that the data in SSDs is held on small flash storage chips rather than large platters, and to securely erase the data, you need to smash the chips. Usually, this means taking the cover off the drive before you start swinging.

If you're not sure which are the flash storage chips, just drive a nail through all the large chips just to be on the safe side.

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