Post #1153: The dance of data destruction

Posted on June 4, 2021

For about 20 years, I was self-employed as a health economist.  In the course of that, I used terabytes of “sensitive data” in the form of health care claims (bills), all of which, at some point, had to be destroyed.

I started in the era of reel-to-reel magnetic tape.  You’ll still see those big reel-to-reel tape drives in the backround of cheesy science-fiction movies.  At some point, those open reels morphed into tape cartridges, the same magnetic medium in a more convenient and higher-storage-density package.

In either case, destroying data on magnetic tape was easy.  All you had to do was pass a big purpose-made electromagnet over the tapes, and they were rendered unreadable.  Bulk tape erasers were cheap, fast, and effective.

Then, for a while, I got most of my data on optical media such as DVDs.  Those actually had some entertainment value when they were due to be discarded.  I’d toss them on the gravel pad in my back yard and invite my kids to stomp on them.   They seemed to have a good time, and I guarantee the results made the discs unreadable.  It was an occasional family ritual we referred to as the dance of data destruction.

But what I mostly have now are disk drives.  Boxes and boxes of high-capacity disk drives.

As my career progressed, drive manufacturers were great about increasing drive capacity.  I started out using 30 and 60 megabyte drives.  (Yes, megabyte).  Large files had to be split across multiple drives.  But as time went on, files that I used to have to split across multiple drives now easily fit on modern multi-terabyte drives.  The sizes of the files that were made available for distribution increased accordingly.

Drive manufacturers did a great job of increasing capacity, but speed of access did not increase in proportion.  As a result, it takes hours upon hours to overwrite the data on a modern multi-terabyte drive.  I even bought a device dedicated to erasing drives.  This device absolutely works at as fast a rate as the drive can handle.  And for multi-terabyte drives, it takes the better part of a day to do even one pass over the entire drive surface.

And so, as much as I hate to do it, I’ve decided to destroy the drive hardware rather than just wiping the drives and giving them away.  Once you figure out how to get into the drives and extract the platters (disks), this is orders-of-magnitude faster than overwriting the data and keeping the drive intact.

This bothers me, because these drives still work.  But it only bothers me a little.   Disk drives with rotating magnetic media are dinosaurs, being replaced by solid-state drives in just about every conceivable situation.

So my lovely multi-terabyte hard drives are, in a sense, just the reel-to-reel tapes of the 2020s.  They work, but they are in the process of becoming obsolete.

I found several YouTube videos on how to take apart hard drives, but none of them seemed particularly good.  So I made my own.  If you’ve ever wondered what the inside of a hard drive looks like, check out my three-minute YouTube video on how to disassemble a hard drive and extract the platters.