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How and why millions of healthy HDDs are destroyed

90% of hard drives used in data centers are destroyed after the end of the warranty, even if they are good (Graphic: CC0 Public Domain)

Millions of hard drives are destroyed every year, even though they are perfectly healthy, functional and can be used for a long time. Experts and business unite in trying to find an adequate solution to the problem.

“You don’t have to be an engineer to know that destroying usable media is a bad thing,” says John-Michael Hands. He is secretary and treasurer of the Circular Drive Initiative (CDI), a partnership initiative of a group of technology companies promoting the safe reuse of data storage hardware. Hands also works at Chia Network, a company that develops blockchain systems.

Chia Network can easily reuse hard drives that large data centers have decided to throw away. So in 2021, the company is turning to IT asset disposal firms that accept obsolete equipment from businesses that no longer need the technology. The answer is emphatic: “Sorry, we have to destroy the old discs.”

“Why do we have to destroy them?” Hands resents. “Just erase the data and then sell the drives!” But they told us that the customers would not allow them to do such a thing. One disk destruction service provider said they destroy five million disks for one customer.”

Storage devices are usually sold with a five-year warranty. Large data centers retire them when that warranty expires. Devices that store less sensitive data are spared, but CDI estimates that 90% of hard drives are destroyed when they are removed from data centers.

The reason? “The cloud service providers we spoke to were unanimous: security! But what they really had in mind was risk management,” says Hands. “They have a zero risk policy. It is not acceptable for one in a million devices to expire; one in 10 million devices – no; even one in 100 million devices should not leak. The risk must be absolutely zero.”

Standards and approaches

There are different methods of destroying old hard drives, with different levels of risk of old data being regenerated and leaked.

The least secure method is “clearing”. All data is deleted, but can be recovered using specialized software tools. “It’s a good enough solution if you want to reuse the device within your own company,” says Hands.

Fragmentation is the other approach. It is considered good physical destruction. But not quite. The latest devices have hundreds of thousands of data records per square centimeter. An experienced data recovery professional could take a 3mm piece and read quite a bit of data from it.

The most extreme method is to destroy the devices by melting or burning them. The data can never be recovered, nor can the device or its materials.

Alongside these methods is another safe option for reuse: purging. When the device is wiped, data recovery is impossible using state-of-the-art tools and techniques.

Last year, the IEEE Standards Association even approved a new standard for cleaning storage devices.

Purification

There are several ways the device can be wiped clean. Hard drives can be overwritten with new data, for example, which can then be checked to ensure that the original data is gone. With today’s storage capacity, such a procedure can take a day or two.

Cryptographic erasure only takes a few seconds. Many modern devices have built-in encryption, so the data on them can only be read if the encryption key is present. If this key is deleted, all data is unreadable. They are still there, but impossible to read. In these cases, the device is safe for resale.

“If we can universally, across all of our customers, trust that secure erasure is in place, then drives can be returned for reuse,” said Amy Zuckerman, director of sustainability and transformation at Seagate, a founding member of CDI. “It’s still happening now, but on a very small scale.”

In its 2022 financial year, the company refurbished and resold 1.16 million hard drives and solid-state drives (SSDs), saving more than 540 tons of e-waste.

More than ecology

At first glance, the topic of the problem as a matter of ecology, environmental protection. But in reality, we don’t need messages about the beauty of the circular economy to understand that there is something wrong with the idea of ​​destroying healthy and usable machinery – it is a pure waste of resources and a waste of money.

Moreover, what is unnecessary for some is a treasure for others. For example, the idea of ​​cleaning and reusing hardware also applies to other devices, including routers.

“Just because a company has a policy of replacing something in its third year of operation doesn’t mean it’s unfit,” says Tony Anscombe, chief security evangelist at IT security company ESET. “A large ISP may decommission some enterprise routers that a smaller ISP would only dream of having.”

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