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Introduction

Data destruction on hard drives is comparatively easy, either by overwriting, though this may take a long time, or more securely by physical destruction. However, with solid state disks (SSDs) and memory sticks, physical destruction is the only safe method. This is because data is not written to fixed locations as on a hard disk, but is stored in whichever are currently the least used memory cells. This is so as to spread out the wear caused by every write operation - something that doesn’t happen with hard disks. As a result, old copies of data are likely to persist in memory cells that you can’t directly access, except with forensic tools.

The smart thing to do is to enable encryption before you write any sensitive data, then all you have to do is change the key or unlock code to something totally random and destroy any record of it, and no one will be able to recover your data. On Windows, you can use Bitlocker, or FileVault on Macs. You can use either of those on memory sticks, or Veracrypt, which also works on Linux. You should always encrypt your memory sticks as they are so easily lost.

If you were looking to destroy data on a hard disk, take a look at my companion guide here How to safely and securely destroy hard disk data

  1. The first step is to open the device in order to expose the storage chips.
    • The first step is to open the device in order to expose the storage chips.

    • In the case of an SSD, if you're lucky you may only have to remove the screws holding the lid on (ignoring warnings about voiding the warranty). Otherwise, and for other devices, look for any crack between two halves of the case which might give you a weak point you can work on. You may need a hammer or a dremel with a cutting disk.

    • Whatever destructive means you use, make sure you're aware of safety precautions appropriate for the tools you use.

    • When you get inside you will see a circuit board with components on one or both sides. The largest of these will be the memory chips, and may be mounted on both sides of the board. There will be one or more similar looking but smaller controller chips which you probably don't need to worry about.

  2. With the device on a firm surface, place the tip of the cold chisel across the middle of the memory chip and strike the cold chisel firmly with the hammer. The chip should split neatly in two. Half of it is likely to take flight - make sure there are no children around with their eyes at a similar level to the chip.
    • With the device on a firm surface, place the tip of the cold chisel across the middle of the memory chip and strike the cold chisel firmly with the hammer.

    • The chip should split neatly in two. Half of it is likely to take flight - make sure there are no children around with their eyes at a similar level to the chip.

    • Repeat for all other memory chips on both sides of the board.

  3. If you had to use a dremel to open the device you can use this as an alternative to the hammer and cold chisel.
    • If you had to use a dremel to open the device you can use this as an alternative to the hammer and cold chisel.

    • With a cutting disk, grind through each memory chip until you can see the circuit board underneath.

    • Take care not to inhale the dust that will be created.

Conclusion

To reassemble your device - err, forget about it!

But please dispose of the remains of your day’s work responsibly, in a manner appropriate for electronic waste.

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Philip Le Riche

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