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Explorations in Data Destruction 2: Thermal Techniques

Having highlighted the goals and rules for the research, Zoz demonstrates HDD destruction attempts via a couple of thermal methods, including oxygen injection.

So method number one, the good old plasma cutter (watch video below). Starting off keeping things simple. I had used plasma cutters many times and I expected it could make much more of a mess with a hard disk.

Using plasma cutter to destroy a hard drive

But as you can see, really nice, it completes in about 40 seconds. It’s very easy to contain using, you could build an array of plasma cutting heads that would match the disk. Looks pretty good so far. Oh, this drive is powered up and spinning – I wanted to see if it would keep spinning, and so just one insertion point would be enough to destroy the top platter. It will start to leak out a little bit down the bottom, which will let you know that it’s done. Very nice.

The effect of plasma cutter

The effect of plasma cutter

This drive stayed hot for a long time. This shot (see right-hand image) is after I repeatedly burned myself taking out the screws. You can see that it has killed some of the top of that platter.
Close-up shot

Close-up shot

Here’s a close-up shot of it (see left-hand image). So it spun for a little while, but not for very long. It thermally seized up quickly and there was some damage to the top of that platter all the way around. But then it stopped and it just burned a big fat hole through there. And if you look at the lower platters, the hole went through but they are not damaged anywhere else (see image below).
The damage to platters

The damage to platters

So you can’t rely on the drive spinning for this method.
Totally feasible

Totally feasible

You have to have multiple cutting heads parts. That’s the fully disassembled thing (see left-hand image). Didn’t make a lot of a mess. Totally feasible, in my opinion.

Pump oxygen through the HDD

Pump oxygen through the HDD

Next, I thought, well, these guys used propane torches and MAPP gas and so on in the previous talk; what if we could just use the drive itself as the fuel? Like pump oxygen through the drive and start it off with a little magnesium or something and just see if the drive will consume itself (see right-hand image).

So here’s oxygen injection (watch video below). I drilled a little vent hole that you can see venting out there. Eventually I melted the oxygen hose and had to turn the oxygen off, so didn’t really go to completion.

Oxygen injection vs. HDD

Here’s a high-speed shot with the FS700. There we go. So, you know, a little bit of a containment issue, but I feel like I could easily figure out an engineering solution to this with an extra 2U of insulation and air extraction.

On the outside

On the outside

That’s what it looked like before opening (see right-hand image).
Internal damage

Internal damage

And inside it did make quite a mess (see left-hand image). There it is after cleaning off the platter. And you can see the platter is nicely melted on one side. With some more engineering effort here and just pumping a lot of oxygen through this narrow 1U space,
Potentially feasible

Potentially feasible

I feel like I could make this consume the whole drive. So I’m going to call that potentially feasible (see right-hand image).

Thermite injection

Thermite injection

But I know what everyone is here to see, and it’s the first thing anyone ever talks about when they talk about drive destruction, which is thermite (see left-hand image). What I really wanted to do here was create a slurry thermite that I could pump into the drive when you pushed the switch, and it would just really fuck it up big time. So I experimented with doing some slurries. First of all, since this is 101, here’s the thermite reaction.
Making a slurry

Making a slurry

I know you all know this. Iron and aluminum swap their oxygen partners like they’re at a swingers party, and it releases a lot of energy. You can get up to about 2500 ºC. 3:1 (iron oxide:aluminum) by weight if you use iron(III) oxide.

Here I am, stirring up a slurry (see right-hand image). It looks really nice, you know. It’s very-very smooth and gooey, and you could really easily inject it. I thought this was great. But in retrospect, the bright silver color that you see there – remember it’s silver, aluminum plus red iron oxide – it should have clued me into what was going to happen next when I tried this.

Giving thermite injection a shot

So here I am, trying to set off the slurry thermite with a blowtorch (watch video above). You can see this is eight times sped up, so it’s really not reacting very pleasantly, it’s not helping me out at all. So my theory is that the solvent is forming micelles with the oxide inside and the flake aluminum sticking on the outside. It’s just preventing them from reacting very well. And I tried a bunch of different solvents, such as glycerin, petroleum naphtha, and kerosene. And you can see afterwards, if I run a magnet over it, that very small amounts of elemental iron are being produced, not every much at all. So a reaction is just not really happening here. Probably the oxide is just being blown out with the smoke. And when I flipped over that disk top that I was burning, there’s no damage to it at all. It really didn’t get hot enough. So total fail.

Hiding thermite inside

Hiding thermite inside

The next idea was, well, if you open a disk there’s quite a lot of space inside it. So, you know, if we were really paranoid running a data center we could hide thermite inside that drive, just for when we needed to use it (see right-hand image).
The drive can still function

The drive can still function

So I pulled off some unused pins from the disk bus connector to use them as the igniter, and I found that you can fit about 15 grams of thermite inside a drive.

And the heads don’t need to move into that space (see left-hand image), so you can still read and write to the drive with that in there. This kind of thing always makes me feel like some kind of sketchy drug dealer or assassin when I do this. But it really makes me laugh, because when you go through the airport and they make you turn on your electronics – totally worthless. There’s plenty of room for destructive shit inside electronics that still function.

Thermite pre-insertion

Hardly any damage

Hardly any damage

So here is the shot with the pre-inserted thermite (watch video above). Not too bad, right? We can deal with this inside 1U. We opened it up, and you can see that a lot of stuff has burnt and this stuff is all over the platters. But upon a little closer examination here, we start to see the nice shiny non-stick chemically unreactive platters coming through (see right-hand image). And when it’s completely washed off, actually bugger all has happened to those platters. Total fail.
 

Read previous: Zoz – And That’s How I Lost My Other Eye… Explorations in Data Destruction

Read next: Explorations in Data Destruction 3: Beyond Straight Thermite

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