Ask LH: What Happens If I Build A Self-Destructing Computer?

Ask LH: What Happens If I Build A Self-Destructing Computer?

Dear Lifehacker, This may seem like a stupid question; I got the idea from watching an episode of The Good Wife. Imagine I rigged my tower PC so that if it was unplugged or disconnected, it would automatically blow up and destroy all the available data. What would happen if a government agency tried to seize the PCs and this happened? Thanks, Bombs Away

Bomb picture from Shutterstock

Dear Bombs Away,

The Lifehacker inbox amazes me sometimes. Yes, this is a stupid question. I foresee four possible outcomes, in order of probability:

  • You injure yourself while trying to construct this insane system. Your health insurer declines to pay for the damage. Later, you are nominated for the Darwin Awards.
  • You manage to rig up this deathtrap, and then injure a family member who unplugs your PC to do the vacuuming. They sue you for large sums.
  • There’s a power cut while you’re working, the exploding system kicks in and your genitals are destroyed. Later, you are nominated for the Darwin Awards.
  • The police do try and seize your machine and are injured or killed. You are tried for manslaughter. The public is not sympathetic.

The lesson? Don’t waste time on this when you could be constructing a much more elaborate tin foil hat.


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  • You don’t really need to “blow up” the computer, just destroy the hard drives.

    You probably don’t want the trigger to be something as simple or crude as when the power gets cut either. The way I understand how computer evidence is collected, they won’t actually unplug your computer straight away. They’ll try to collect evidence off you computer while it’s still running, so as to avoid any encryption/password issues. Of course they’ll still take it away and collect evidence, but by that stage it might be too late for any “self-destruct”.

    That in mind, I think a better way to do it would be to have a tamper switch. You could rig up something so it’s required to be active to use the computer, which should in theory catch anyone using your computer while it’s still turned on. Also have a switch so if someone tries to open the computer it destroys the hard drive as well. You would also be wise to destroy the RAM using the same method, at least for the active use tamper switch.

    The actual method for destroying your hard drives should probably be a little safer than “blowing it up”. In my opinion I think the best way would be to use thermite, store it in shaped ceramic vessels, just above the hard drive you wish to destroy (and your RAM as well). Have it so your trigger switch fires something off, setting off the thermite. You shouldn’t need much thermite, a small amount burning for a few seconds should be ample to completely destroy a hard drive beyond recovery, but obviously you should properly test this. I think such a small amount of incendiaries, as well as the confined space, and shaped ceramic vessel should make it relatively safe. Of course accidents could happen, but at least if these accidents happen it won’t result in someone getting killed.

    That should keep your “private financial documents” safe from prying eyes.

    • Provided you could successfully build such a system, I’m not sure there could be much they could charge you with.
      You didn’t destroy the evidence, they did. Therefore you get off the destruction of evidence charge, or at least on to a lesser charge.
      They might get you on perverting the course of justice though.
      But IANAL, and I’m not even an avid courtroom TV Series watcher!

      • “You didn’t destroy the evidence, they did.”

        That’s not how it works. If it was, I could rig a shotgun trap to kill the first person who opened my front door and it would be seen as suicide, not murder. Rigging any system that “destroys or conceals it or renders it illegible, undecipherable or incapable of identification” is destruction of evidence, regardless of who trips that system.

        • Not the same thing. Most people would setup such a system to stop thieves accessing their data. Not to stop police taking it. If you know police have it, then destroy the data, yes you can be charged.

          • The law defines the crime not just in terms of what is evidence, but what is “reasonably likely to be” evidence. You would have a hard time justifying to a judge that you rigged a system to physically destroy your hard drives solely to prevent theft and not because their contents could be used as evidence – justice may be blind, but it isn’t stupid.

          • Police just don’t take computers without you knowing, then go into them. They knock on your door, provide you with the warrant, then take the machine. They’ll also generally ask you to unlock the data for them. As I said, if you know police have it, then destroy the data you’ll be charged.

          • They might ask you to unlock it for them, but are you obliged to?
            I would have thought that “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law”.
            Encrypting a Hard Drive and not supplying the password to decrypt it is surely included in that right to remain silent.
            Similarly, rigging your hard drive to destroy data if a certain sequence of events does not occur must be protected. If the police were to seize the device and inadvertently destroy the data, I can’t see how they could charge you with destruction of evidence.

          • Law would differ between states. But I think the law changed several years ago in one state when someone suspected of child porn refused to decrypt his Bitlocker protected HDD. The proposed law was that if you didn’t unlock your PC for the police, it would be taken that you had on the HDD what they suspected.

        • Depending on what stuff is on that hard drive, destruction of evidence might be the preferable charge. But just thinking about what that might be is creeping me out.

  • im sure a UPS mounted inside the case that detects powerloss and initiates a wipe disk could go a long way. That with a encrypted block within the data, you would really need to be looking for it to find the data.

  • What do you have on there that you need to hide in the first place?
    If you do need to hide something, you probably in the wrong to start with?

  • As far as I’m concerned, the only two possible reasons you would have to not want the government looking at your files is kiddie porn or terrorism. Either way, I hope the computer blows up and you’re nominated for the darwin awards.

  • “They might get you on perverting the course of justice though.”

    There are other legitmate reasons you can use in this defence. Perhaps the makeshift was to prevent theifs getting your secret documents if it got stolen

  • Probably the best question in the history of Lifehacker.

    Anyway, can a computer be destroyed via software these days?

  • its possible to do this without being dangerous.. it just gets less permanent (wiping or random encryption), or more expensive (automated drill through the disk… while running).

  • Slightly off topic, with the increase in cellphone theft (especially in the US where they seem to be snatching them mid-call) I would love to see the introduction of the exploding handset.

    Something easily attached like an expandable battery and with a blast radius that simply takes off the hand that has stolen it. Activate either a push button remote or via an internet connection…

    • Wouldn’t you love to be the guy who finds a lost phone, and as they’re taking it to a police station or equivalent, it blows up…

  • Explosions are pretty random – the kind of explosion that would guarantee destruction of the hard drive would be too much to safely sit inside a hot metal box with a lot of electrical current passing through it.

    It’d be more sensible (and obviously, given the subject matter, “sensible” is a term I’m using incredibly loosely) would be to rig an enclosure around your actual hard drive that operates a form of “dead man’s switch”. Hook the outside to the cabling, and on the inside, place a syringe or something filled with something corrosive (probably specifically corrosive to aluminum) with the tip directed onto the physical platter. If anything is disconnected from the tower or the drive itself or the case, have it spray the drive platter with the corrosive.

  • If you are that security tight, use a Bootable Disc to use your pc, and if the power goes off, all the data stored on RAM is removed…

  • I once had an idea that a HDD could be replaced by a fiber optic cable spool so that the Data was stored until the spool was pulled ad the data loop broken.

  • What about a double key’ed crypto container? Password A shows you the family pictures, password B your “important financial documents”. You just provide password A.

  • Am I the only one wondering what sort of illegal stuff the asker was doing that they would need to resort to this to protect their data?

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