A few years back, a professor at a well-known law school told me how his university dealt with old computer hard drives. “We used to pay students to smash them with sledge hammers,” he recalled, “until someone got a piece of metal in his eye. Then we stopped.” Around the same time I heard this tale, I discovered an experiment by MIT researchers. The students at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science (I’m sure you have a visual of what they might have looked like) purchased used hard drives from eBay and other sources. Of the approximately 170 drives, they found only 12 that were properly sanitized. The rest all contained data, including credit card numbers and medical records. Doh! This study sparked another project, this one involving “drive slagging.” If you know that slag relates to molten metals, you probably figured out that drive slagging means melting down your hard drive. If you’d like to see some neat pictures, check out the link. I think you will agree, there’s no way to rescue that data!
Aside from melting, foolproof ways of sanitizing a hard drive so that it can be disposed of are few and the techniques for rescuing data on hard drives have improved over the last few years. I’ve heard experts in computer forensics state that data can be retrieved from hard drives that were submerged in sea water, burned, and otherwise abused. Such feats are not inexpensive, of course. Spending $1000 for one drive would not be unusual (which is why you’re glad you made that backup, right?).
So, what’s the best way to dispose of a hard drive? See my eCycle post from December 2009.