What does it take to destroy a hard disk?

Not only were the documents and photos intact, but even the Windows file structure was preserved, making it easy to find the required data. It was a similar story for the drives that were dropped from the third floor and soaked in beer – every single file was recovered.

The prognosis wasn’t so good for the bruisers from the BBC, however. When the engineers took the drive’s casing apart, they were confronted with hundreds of shattered platter shards, which there was no hope of piecing back together. ‘You went a little bit too far,’ Winter told the BBC team, with commendable restraint.

Nevertheless, Winter said he was confident they might have recovered some files had the platters been the aluminium variety found in most desktops, instead of the glass platters used in the majority of laptop drives.

The BBC’s hard disk was reduced to shards of glass after its rough treatment

How much would it have cost to recover our data normally? The starting price for laptop drive recovery is £495 rising to around £1,000 depending on how urgently you need the data. All things considered, the BBC got off lightly. Data used to be returned to customers on DVDs, but now that hard disk capacities regularly top hundreds of gigabytes, the company returns data on an external hard disk drive. It’s more cost-effective than the man hours spent swapping discs during the burning process.

Sewage, shuttles and suicides

Though the BBC had thoroughly demolished its disk, it certainly wasn’t the messiest job Ontrack had ever faced, according to Winter, who claims the company has recovered files from drives covered in raw sewage before – they were obviously sent to the clean room.

Ontrack has recovered data from burnt out disks – and those drenched in sewage

The company is also called upon for more macabre tasks. Ontrack’s US branch was responsible for the successful recovery of data from the ill-fated space shuttle Columbia’s black box, which claimed the lives of the seven crew in 2003. ‘The black box is so well protected, the media is usually in good condition,’ Winter claims.

Back in the UK, the company also helps police and solicitors with data recovery for criminal cases. Winter claimed that the day before our visit, the company had been contacted by the family of a man who had taken his own life after smashing up his laptop. ‘The widow contacted us to get data off the hard disk, to see if it can give us any reasons why he committed suicide,’ Winter says.

The company also sees an increasing number of USB flash drives and memory cards. One customer even sent in their iPod Nano, on which they had been backing up their vital data. And we thought the BBC had been reckless…

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