Yottabytes: Storage and Disaster Recovery

Aug 31 2017   10:55PM GMT

How to Destroy a Hard Drive? Ask Terry Pratchett

Sharon Fisher Sharon Fisher Profile: Sharon Fisher

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If you really want to make sure that nobody’s going to be able to read your data, the late author Terry Pratchett just showed you how it’s done: Per his instructions, his executor just ran over his hard disk drives with a steamroller.

“Pratchett’s hard drive was crushed by a vintage John Fowler & Co steamroller named Lord Jericho at the Great Dorset Steam Fair, ahead of the opening of a new exhibition about the author’s life and work,” reports The Guardian.

Pratchett, who died in March, 2015, at 66 from Alzheimer’s disease, reportedly told author Neil Gaiman of his wish, who revealed it in an August 2015 interview with the Times of London. “The fantasy author Terry Pratchett wanted his unfinished work to be run over with a steamroller, according to his close friend, the writer Neil Gaiman,” the paper reported at the time. “Gaiman, the award-winning author of The Sandman and Coraline, reveals that Pratchett, his confidant of 30 years, told him that he wanted ‘whatever he was working on at the time of his death to be taken out along with his computers, to be put in the middle of a road and for a steamroller to steamroll over them all.’”

Rob Wilkins, who carried out the instructions in the will, manages the Pratchett estate, and tweeted from an official Twitter account that he was “about to fulfill my obligation to Terry” along with a picture of an intact computer hard drive – following up with a tweet that showed the hard drive in pieces, the Guardian reports. The pieces will also become part of the exhibit.

Richard Henry, an official at The Salisbury Museum, where the exhibition will be held, told NPR that the task actually wasn’t easy. “It’s surprisingly difficult to find somebody to run over a hard drive with a steamroller. I think a few people thought we were kidding when I first started putting out feelers to see if it was possible or not.”

Even the steamroller didn’t destroy the hard disk drive, Henry continued. “The steamroller totally annihilated the stone blocks underneath but the hard drive survived better than expected so we put it in a stone crusher afterwards which I think probably finally did it in,” he told the BBC.

Why not just erase the hard disk drive, which reportedly had ten unfinished works on it? Because as any number of criminals have found out to their sorrow, “deleting” a file doesn’t really delete it — just the pointer to the file gets deleted. Much of the data in the file is still on the hard disk drive and can be scraped off by a diligent forensic analyst. Even deleting the file multiple times, rewriting the disk, and so on might not fully eliminate the data.

This is not to say that there weren’t plenty of people who were sad that Wilkins had been so thorough. (Including Gaiman, who said in the August 2015 interview that he was “ridiculously glad” the destruction had not yet happened.) In his lifetime, Pratchett wrote more than 70 books, selling more than 85 million copies worldwide, and no doubt many of his eager fans would have loved to see even an incomplete work.

But the author did not want his unpublished works to be completed by someone else and released, Henry told the BBC. In fact, Wilkins told the BBC in 2015 that what Pratchett really wanted was to have a device connected to his heartbeat so when his heart stopped it would wipe the contents of his hard drive.

Assuming, of course, that the hard disk drive that was crushed was actually the one that Pratchett had used. After all, he had Alzheimer’s; maybe he didn’t know what he was asking for? Maybe someone made a copy of it in the two years after Pratchett died. (Why it took two years before it was destroyed, no one has said.) We can always still hope. “It’s not impossible that some further fragment might surface in years to come, and this will all turn out to have been an elaborate joke on Pratchett’s part,” writes Stephanie Merritt in the Guardian. “I wouldn’t put it past him.”

“Mr. Pratchett is hardly the first author to request that his unpublished work be destroyed or hidden from public view,” reports Sophie Haigney in the New York Times. “Franz Kafka wanted his diaries, manuscripts and letters burned. Eugene O’Neill wanted the publication and performance of ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ to be delayed until 25 years after his death. Vladimir Nabokov left instructions that fragments of a manuscript be destroyed. In all of these cases, though, the requests were ignored, and the unpublished work came to light.” Edward Albee has left a similar request but it isn’t clear whether it will be honored, she adds.

If you don’t happen to have a steamroller handy, other methods for ensuring the destruction of a hard disk drive include a sledgehammer, a .45, or taking it apart and destroying the disks inside.

7  Comments on this Post

 
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  • allen1356
    Since the data on the disk are stored magnetically, would it not be sufficient just to de-gauss it with, for example, a bulk tape eraser?  Much less dramatic, but probably more effective. 
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  • ITPMSFCA
    Over the years, I have collected nearly a hundred disks in my personal and small business systems and have kept those drives. Recently, as the article concludes, I have disassembled each one and destroyed the platters. This is a foolproof way to ensure data is never compromised... time-consuming but foolproof!
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  • MHanseman
    A lot of data destruction companies offer "shredding" which leaves nothing but little bits and pieces of physical drive..
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  • allen1356
    We can all come up with spectacular ways to destroy a hard drive.  What is more challenging and less wasteful would be a way to erase completely the records on the drive so it can then be reused.  Any practical suggestions? 
     
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  • allen1356
    We can come up with lots of spectacular ways to destroy a hard drive.  What would be more useful is a method of erasing completely the records on the drive so it can then be reused.  Any suggestions along those lines?
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  • Sharon Fisher
    The question is, how much time does it take to erase a drive and check to make sure it's erased? With the cost of storage these days, and the cost of personnel, my guess is that just buying a new drive is cheaper.
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  • Kevin Beaver
    All great methods for destruction, no doubt. I'm sure that was a fun exercise! Just not scalable for the average enterprise - especially when time is so scarce and so many critical security issues are considered acceptable or are being left undone altogether.
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