Destroying a Hard Drive

Posted by JJinPhila on October 26, 2010 

            When looking at the disappearance of Ray Gricar, I rarely go into the field.  I do most of my research with a computer and books (remember those).  For this entry, I did go into the field, specifically the vacant lots behind my house. The owner cuts the grass several times during the year, and last week, I heard the large lawn mower back there.  I was “in the field” that afternoon.

            As I’ve written about in the past, I had computer problems last summer.  I replaced my computer and decided to destroy the hard drive in my old one.  It gave me a chance to get some more direct experience in hard drive destruction and some of the questions around the destruction of Mr. Gricar’s laptop.  I did some experimentation. 

            The first experiment was to try physically damage the drive using force.  I had moved the computer into my damp basement several months before, so I went down there and removed it from the computer.  Most of the basement floor is concrete, so I dropped it on the floor.  Then I slammed it on the floor, again and again.  That managed to scratch up the casing.  Then I got a sixteen penny nail and tried to drive it through the casing an disk.  Well I got through the casing, but I eventually bent the nail and the next one; I’m sure I scratched the disk.  I then repeatedly hit the drive with the hammer, all to no avail.  I did manage to drive a nail in a seam, but only managed to put another hole in the casing.

            What did I learn from my attempt to destroy the drive?  I learned that these things are a lot more indestructible than I thought.  I could damage the drive a bit, but not destroy it.  I’m fairly sure that data could be extracted.

            The next that I thought I’d try is getting the drive to rust.  As it was sitting in a damp basement for more than a month, and still had no rust, I wasn’t too optimistic.  My basement is concrete, but it is that type of gritty concrete that gets those tiny bits of grainy particles in it when it gets wet.  I use a bucket to clean up in the basement that has a whole bunch of those grainy particles at the bottom.  I filled that bucket, grainy particles and all, with tap water, but I added salt.  Not a little salt, but enough that the water had the smell of the Jersey shore in late spring.  If you’ve ever had a car in a Central Pennsylvania winter, you have an idea of what even a little salt will do to metal; this was more.

            I used the drive to stir the water and get that salt and sediment in the water, and dropped the drive in.  I’d repeat this every 2-3 days, along with taking the drive out and hurling it to the floor a few more times.  At one point, we had a heavy rainstorm and some water drained into a part of the basement that has a dirt floor.  I put the drive into that muddy mess for 3-5 hours, and then replaced the drive in the bucket.  I also collected some fresh rainwater that I added to the bucket.

            After 3-4 weeks, I removed the dripping drive.  Sediment and salt covered it.  Without drying it, I set it on a milk crate; the water trickled out of it.  I let it set for about two weeks. Then I rinsed it off.  There was a little bit of rust, but nothing like the photos of Mr. Gricar’s drive or laptop, but generally in the areas where I had physically damaged the drive.

            What did I learn by soaking the drive?  It takes a long time, even in adverse conditions to rust the drive.

            I also wanted to see if someone, especially Mr. Gricar, could have tossed the drive from the bank; that is what took me into the field, literally.  I went out, and tossed the drive in that vacant lot; the drive weighs about a pound.  Now, since I’m both middle aged and not particularly athletic, I think Mr. Gricar would have a better range.  I tossed the drive underhanded.  It landed about 50 feet away and bounced; I tried it several times and got the same result.  One thing I did notice was that, even though I saw where the drive landed, there was no litter in the field, and the grass was cut very short, I had difficulty finding it.

            Could I have tossed it from the bank in Lewisburg and had it land near where the drive in Lewisburg was found?  Yes.  I tried my experiment on level ground, and the bank was about ten feet higher than the area where it landed.  The trajectory was a bid of an arc, so it would have traveled further before hitting the lower ground.

            And how does this relate to Mr. Gricar’s disappearance?

1.  It would be difficult for Mr. Gricar to destroy the drive, and with it the data, by destroying it physically.  The easiest and less noisy method would be tossing the drive in the river.

2.  The drive (and the laptop) was tossed in the river well before they were found.  Even under conditions that were much more likely to produce rust, damage to the case, long term exposure in a damp environment, salt water, that level of rust actually found could not be reproduced in even after five to six weeks.  Both the laptop and the drive were in the water for at least two to three months.

3.  Mr. Gricar could have tossed the drive from the bank.


E-mail J. J. in Phila at

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