Erase Disk Concepts

Erasing Confidential Data

Modern methods of data encryption are deterring network attackers from extracting sensitive data from stored database files.

Attackers (who want to retrieve confidential data) become more resourceful and look for places where data might be stored temporarily. For example, the Windows DELETE command merely changes the files attributes and location so that the operating system will not look for the file located on FAT/exFAT volumes. The situation with NTFS file system is similar.

One avenue of attack is the recovery of data from residual data on a discarded hard drive. When deleting confidential data from hard drives, removable disks or USB devices, it is important to extract all traces of the data so that recovery is not possible.

Most official guidelines regarding the disposal of confidential magnetic data do not take into account the depth of today's recording densities nor the methods used by the OS when removing data.

Removal of confidential personal information or company trade secrets in the past might have been performed using the FORMAT command or the FDISK command. Using these procedures gives users a sense of confidence that the data has been completely removed.

When using the FORMAT command Windows displays a message like this: Formatting a disk removes all information from the disk.

Actually the FORMAT utility creates new empty directories at the root area, leaving all previous data on the disk untouched. Moreover, an image of the replaced FAT tables is stored so that the UNFORMAT command can be used to restore them.

FDISK merely cleans the Partition Table (located in the drive's first sector) and does not touch anything else.

Moreover, most of hard disks contain hidden zones (disk areas that cannot be accessed and addressed on a logical access level). KillDisk is able to detect and reset these zones, cleaning up the information inside.

Sanitization Types

NIST 800-88 international security standard (Guidelines for Media Sanitization) defines different types of sanitization.

Regarding sanitization, the principal concern is ensuring that data is not unintentionally released. Data is stored on media, which is connected to a system. Simply data sanitization applied to a representation of the data as stored on a specific media type.

When media is re-purposed or reaches end of life, the organization executes the system life cycle sanitization decision for the information on the media. For example, a mass-produced commercial software program contained on a DVD in an unopened package is unlikely to contain confidential data. Therefore, the decision may be made to simply dispose of the media without applying any sanitization technique. Alternatively, an organization is substantially more likely to decide that a hard drive from a system that processed Personally Identifiable Information (PII) needs sanitization prior to Disposal.

Disposal without sanitization should be considered only if information disclosure would have no impact on organizational mission, would not result in damage to organizational assets, and would not result in financial loss or harm to any individuals. The security categorization of the information, along with internal environmental factors, should drive the decisions on how to deal with the media. The key is to first think in terms of information confidentiality, then apply considerations based on media type. In organizations, information exists that is not associated with any categorized system. Sanitization is a process to render access to target data (the data subject to the sanitization technique) on the media infeasible for a given level of recovery effort. The level of effort applied when attempting to retrieve data may range widely. NIST SP 800-88 Rev. 1 Guidelines for Media Sanitization Clear, Purge, and Destroy are actions that can be taken to sanitize media. The categories of sanitization are defined as follows:

Clear applies logical techniques to sanitize data in all user-addressable storage locations for protection against simple non-invasive data recovery techniques; typically applied through the standard Read and Write commands to the storage device, such as by rewriting with a new value or using a menu option to reset the device to the factory state (where rewriting is not supported).
For HDD/SSD/SCSI/USB media this means overwrite media by using organizationally approved and validated overwriting technologies/methods/tools. The Clear pattern should be at least a single write pass with a fixed data value, such as all zeros. Multiple write passes or more complex values may optionally be used.

KillDisk supports Clear sanitization type through the Disk Erase command for all R/W magnetic types of media, more than 20 international sanitation methods including custom patterns implemented and can be used.

Purge applies physical or logical techniques that render Target Data recovery infeasible using state of the art laboratory techniques.
For HDD/SSD/SCSI/USB media this means ATA SECURE ERASE UNIT, ATA CRYPTO SCRAMBLE EXT, ATA EXT OVERWRITE, ATA/SCSI SANITIZE and other low-level direct controller commands.

KillDisk supports Purge sanitization type through the Secure Erase command only for media types supporting ATA extensions.

Destroy renders Target Data recovery infeasible using state of the art laboratory techniques and results in the subsequent inability to use the media for storage of data due to physical damages.
For HDD/SSD/SCSI media this means Shred, Disintegrate, Pulverize, or Incinerate by burning the device in a licensed incinerator.
It is suggested that the user categorize the information, assess the nature of the medium on which it is recorded, assess the risk to confidentiality, and determine the future plans for the media. Then, the organization can choose the appropriate type(s) of sanitization. The selected type(s) should be assessed as to cost, environmental impact, etc., and a decision should be made that best mitigates the risk to confidentiality and best satisfies other constraints imposed on the process.

Advanced Data Recovery Systems

Advances in data recovery have been made such that data can be reclaimed in many cases from hard drives that have been wiped and disassembled. Security agencies use advanced applications to find cybercrime related evidence. Also there are established industrial spy agencies using sophisticated channel coding techniques such as PRML (Partial Response Maximum Likelihood), a technique used to reconstruct the data on magnetic disks. Other methods include the use of magnetic force microscopy and recovery of data based on patterns in erase bands.

Although there are very sophisticated data recovery systems available at a high price. Almost all the data can also be easily restored with an off-the-shelf data recovery utility like Active@ File Recovery, making your erased confidential data quite accessible.

Using KillDisk all data on your hard drive or removable device can be destroyed without the possibility of future recovery. After using KillDisk the process of disposal, recycling, selling or donating your storage device can be done with peace of mind.

International Standards in Data Removal

KillDisk conforms to more than 20 international standards for clearing and sanitizing data (US DoD 5220.22-M, Gutmann and others). You can be sure that sensitive information is destroyed forever once you erase a disk with KillDisk.

KillDisk is a professional security application that destroys data permanently on any computer that can be started using a bootable CD/DVD/BD or USB Flash Disk. Access to the drive's data is made on the physical level via the BIOS (Basic Input-Output System) bypassing the operating system’s logical drive structure organization. Regardless of the operating system, file systems, or type of machine, this utility can destroy all the data on all storage devices. It does not matter which operating systems or file systems are located on the machine.

Secure Erase Concepts

Secure Erase for SSD is used to permanently delete data from the media and to restore the drive’s speed if it starts to drop to noticeably lower performance than stated (at the same time, we don’t consider SLC-caching and other "official" reasons for speed reduction since it’s hardware drive features).

The essence of the problem that Secure Erase can solve: drive began to work slowly (writing and reading data). There can be a lot of reasons, some of them are related to the hardware component and some to the software component. SSDs are very different in service from classic HDDs, therefore, simply deleting data or formatting the drive does not really mean resetting the cell - you need to clear it before recording, which slows down the process of recording new data. In theory, there shouldn’t be such problems, because TRIM exists - a command to clear the data marked for deletion in cells. This command only works with 2.5” and M.2 SATA drives. For drives connected to the PCIe bus (M.2 or PCIe on the motherboard) there is an analogue - Deallocate. But it happens that these functions are disabled for some reason - an OS error, a user error in setting up a disk through third-party software, or the use of non-standard OS assemblies with unknown software components. So, the disk starts to work noticeably slower and it is quite noticeable without any benchmark performance measurements.

SSDs use a number of mapping layers that hide the physical layout of the flash-based memory, as well as help in managing how flash memory data integrity and lifetime are managed. Collectively, these layers are referred to as the Flash Translation Layer (FTL).

SSDs are also over-provisioned: they contain a bit more flash memory than what they’re rated for. This extra memory is used internally by the FTL as empty data blocks, used when data needs to be rewritten, and as out-of-band sections for use in the logical to physical mapping.

The mapping layers, and how the flash controller manages memory allocation, pretty much ensure that either erasing or performing a conventional hard drive type of secure erase won’t ensure all data is overwritten, or even erased at all.

One example of how data gets left behind intact is due to how data is managed in an SSD. When you edit a document and save the changes, the saved changes don’t overwrite the original data (an in-place update). Instead, SSDs write the new content to an empty data block and then update the logical to physical map to point to the new location. This leaves the space the original data occupied on the SSD marked as free, but the actual data is left intact. In time, the data marked as free will be reclaimed by the SSD’s garbage collection system, but until then, the data could be recovered.

A conventional Secure Erase, as used with hard drives, is unable to access all of the SSD’s memory location, due to the FTL and how an SSD actually writes data, which could lead to intact data being left behind.

SSD manufacturers understand the need for an easy way to sanitize an SSD, and most have implemented the ATA command, Secure Erase Unit (used with SATA-based SSDs), or the NVMe command, Format NVM (used with PCIe-based SSDs) as a fast and effective method of securely erasing an SSD.

So, SSD drives have a non-trivial system of work, therefore, the scheme for the complete destruction of data should also not be the easiest. But in reality, this is not so at all. Any SSD has a controller that is the "brain" of the drive. He not only tells the system where to write data, but also encrypts the information passing through it and stores the key with himself. If you remove (or rather replace) a given key, then all the information will turn into a random set of 1 and 0 - it will be impossible to decrypt it in any way. Just one simple action by the user can solve the problem of safe data erasure. This method is the fastest and most effective.


To protect information that is critical, both for serious organizations that are concerned about the safety of data and for public sector enterprises working with information classified as state secrets, information systems should usually use certified sanitation algorithms (US DoD 5220.22-M, Canadian OPS-II, NSA 130-2 etc.).

If you combine these two methods (replacing the key and resetting the cells), you get the perfect algorithm for obtaining a completely sterile disk in the state of its maximum performance. This, firstly, solves the problem that we raised at the very beginning, and, secondly, it can help us answer the question about the degree of drive wear.

It is important to note that some drives with built-in encryption can receive only one algorithm upon receipt of a safe erase command - it depends on the controller settings by the manufacturer. If you "reset" your SSD and compare the actual performance with the declared one, you will get the answer to this question. This procedure does not affect disk wear (which is very important). Note that these actions are designed specifically for analyzing the state of the disk, but it will not be possible to achieve a long-term increase in the read/write speed due to the peculiarities of the operation of SSD disks - the situation may depend on both the drive model and the controller firmware. And it must be noted that not all drives support encryption. In this case, the controller simply resets the cells.