Failed DIY Home Data Recovery

On January 7th, 2014, posted in: Daily Clean Room Data Recovery Report by

The Dangers of DIY Data Recovery

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Though their capabilities have grown exponentially since their invention, computers have yet to develop a resistance to poor decision-making on behalf of the user.

      As more and more information gathers into the aethersphere, Google queries have become a quick and easy solution to the minor disturbances of everyday life. Unfortunately, this mysteriously powerful search engine soon becomes a greater liability than asset when delving into complicated subjects. Due to the sheer volume of available information, the phenomenon known as “selective hearing” plagues many helpless individuals. Not only is the internet jam-packed with pseudo-science, but it’s seemingly impossible to differentiate the credibility of one article from the next. In the realm of data recovery, Google’s front page provides many “fixes” which – while likely successful on some occasions – function more like coin-tosses than solutions. Today in our cleanroom, we examine the aftermath of an admittedly popular, but volatile hard-drive treatment.

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   At first glance, it is difficult to imagine any repair attempts were made. (left)  However, carefully angling the drive-lid under a light source reveals several small dents in the metal, as well as a circular scratch where the lid was pushed into the bearing. (right)  Before explaining these clearly deliberate dings, let us understand the entire scenario. For a hard drive to read and write data, tiny instruments known as heads literally fly across the spinning platters, hovering just nanometers above the surface. When a drive crashes, these heads may lose their delicate alignment, becoming stuck by friction against the fragile platters. In the reasonable interest of saving both time and money, many drive-crash victims fall into the previously explained Google-trap. While there is plenty of thorough and valuable information available, an inexperienced user will take the path of least resistance, quickly convinced by Yahoo answers to attempt the following procedure:

1. Place affected hard drive in freezer for 1 hour.

2. After removing hard drive from freezer, plug hard drive into power source and give it a few good whacks with the handle-end of a screwdriver.

I admitted earlier that this treatment is popular, even among data recovery specialists. The idea is to give the drive power so the platters start spinning. When the platters spin fast enough, they create a wind tunnel that lifts the heads up much like the wings of an airplane. Ideally, the heads are never in contact with the platters, so they wait off to the side until the air is moving fast enough in order to take flight. In this case of drive failure though, the heads are already being held by friction against the platters before anything has begun moving. We don’t want the heads dragging against the moving platters for any amount of time because it physically destroys the thin layer of data atop said platters. For this reason, we whack the hard drive with a screwdriver in hopes of overcoming the initial friction and jolting the heads back into place. Again, the whole process is a real coin-flip that is only appropriate under special circumstances – circumstances beyond the determination of anyone besides an expert.

Here are the consequences of this failed recovery attempt:

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The picture on the right reveals the heads have been mangled. Significantly more dire, the picture on the left reveals a very solid head-sized scratch. It was clearly caused by the heads bouncing violently against the platter upon being hit with a screwdriver at a poor angle. Even if the heads are damaged, it is possible to replace them with a new set of heads that work properly. However, swapping heads is meaningless when there is a scratch on the platter. Platters must remain absolutely pristine; even a fingerprint can render the entire drive unreadable. The above audio sample exposes the clicking and grinding of the damaged heads against the platters – the telltale sign of an irreparable drive. It is unfortunate indeed; by attempting a home repair before sending the drive to Alandata, this client drove the last nail in the coffin for his personal data. It is important to fully realize the value of your own pictures and documents before tampering with such a complicated and delicate system as a modern hard disk drive.

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