Ransomware is a type of malicious software that encrypts files on a computer and demands payment in order to decrypt them. Removing ransomware can be challenging, and wiping the entire computer is one potential solution. However, there are some important factors to consider.
What is ransomware?
Ransomware is a form of malware that encrypts files on a computer or network and renders them inaccessible to the user. The attackers then demand ransom payment in cryptocurrency, such as Bitcoin, in exchange for the decryption key. Some of the most common ransomware variants include CryptoLocker, WannaCry, and Ryuk.
Ransomware typically spreads through phishing emails containing malicious attachments or links. Once executed on the system, it encrypts files commonly used such as documents, images, videos and databases. The encryption algorithms used by ransomware are very secure, making decryption without the key essentially impossible.
In addition to encrypting files, some ransomware also locks the entire system and displays a ransom note. This prevents access to the computer itself until the ransom is paid. However, this is becoming less common as attackers focus more on encrypting critical files rather than entire systems.
Does wiping the computer remove ransomware?
Wiping the computer by reformatting the hard drive and reinstalling the operating system is one potential way to remove ransomware. This removes all files, including the ransomware executable files, from the computer storage. It also resets the computer to factory settings.
Wiping the hard drive ensures ransomware components like encryption modules, configuration files, executables, scripts, temporary files, and registry entries are completely removed. It also removes the encryption applied to files and resets file permissions. This makes files accessible again after reinstalling the OS and restoring from backup.
However, there are some important caveats to keep in mind:
- Wiping may not decrypt files if strong encryption was used. While wiping removes the malware itself, the remnants of encryption may still be present in files recovered from backup.
- Some advanced ransomware resides solely in memory without installing files on the hard disk, making wiping ineffective.
- Files and data will be lost unless properly backed up before wiping the computer.
- Wiping is less effective if ransomware has spread across the network.
- It can be a slow process depending on the amount of data to wipe.
When is wiping the computer advisable?
Here are some instances when wiping the hard drive is an advisable step as part of ransomware removal:
- No recent clean backups exist – With no backups to restore from wiping provides a clean slate.
- Ransomware is localized to a single endpoint – Wiping has a good chance of removing the infection if not spread.
- System or file corruption – Even after ransom is paid corruption may prevent file recovery.
- High-importance target – Drastic measure warranted for high-value systems.
- Online keys or decryptors unavailable – Wiping removes the encryption when keys cannot be obtained.
- Indications of additional malware – Wiping clears other infections missed during cleaning.
Before wiping, it is recommended to disconnect the computer from networks and isolate it to prevent ransomware from spreading. Wiping is most effective as part of a layered response done in conjunction with malware scanning, eliminating backdoors, and changing credentials.
Steps to wipe a computer and reinstall the OS
Here are the general steps to wipe a computer infected with ransomware and perform a clean install of the operating system:
- Disconnect the computer from any network it is on
- Boot into safe mode: This prevents ransomware auto-executing during the wipe process
- Back up personal files: Copy any important files to an external media not infected
- Check for ransomware backups: Any backups made after infection may also contain ransomware
- Wipe the hard drive: Use disk utility software to wipe drives
- Reinstall the operating system: Perform a clean OS installation from media
- Install security software: Add antivirus, firewall and anti-malware tools
- Restore files from clean backup: Retrieve personal files from clean external media
- Reset passwords: Change credentials for any online services
- Check for vulnerabilities: Update software, disable RDP if not needed
Users should ensure proper malware scanning is conducted after reinstalling the OS to check for potential dormant infections before restoring personal files.
Tools to wipe a hard drive
Here are some common disk utility tools that can be used to fully wipe a hard drive during ransomware removal:
|Darik’s Boot and Nuke, completely wipes drive with no OS
|Linux distribution with secure delete options
|Bootable tool for Windows, Linux, etc.
|Windows Install Media
|Windows 10/11 media has drive wipe capabilities
|Apple Disk Utility
|Can wipe drives on MacOS during reinstall
These tools use techniques like overwriting drive data with zeros, random data or multiple passes to make data unrecoverable.
What data gets wiped when reformatting the hard drive?
Reformatting a hard drive results in the following data being permanently deleted or wiped from the storage media:
- Operating system files like Windows DLLs, drivers, etc.
- Program and application files, installers, binaries, etc.
- User-generated documents, media, downloads and desktop files
- Temporary application files and caches
- System configuration files and registry settings
- Log files created by the operating system and applications
- Malware files like ransomware payloads, backdoors, etc.
The master file table, partition tables, filesystem structures and other metadata is also wiped to create a blank slate. Drives can then be repartitioned and reformatted as needed.
However, some data may still remain in certain sectors and require additional wiping techniques to be made fully unrecoverable. This includes file slack space, backup copies on other media, and network storage not directly wiped.
Will wiping an SSD remove ransomware?
Wiping solid state drives (SSDs) will remove ransomware payloads and encryption similar to traditional hard disk drives (HDDs). However, there are some key differences between wiping SSDs vs HDDs:
- SSDs do not store data magnetically like HDDs, so traditional overwrite techniques are not as effective.
- Special SSD wiping utilities use TRIM, block erasure and other commands to wipe data.
- Wear-leveling makes reliably overwriting specific sectors more difficult on SSDs.
- Full-disk encryption common on SSDs requires wiping from pre-boot environment before decryption.
- SSD controllers may retain copies of data in caches that require wiping.
Overall, wiping malware from SSDs requires specialized software/commands, overwriting the entire disk, and understanding the SSD architecture. But when done properly, an SSD wipe is effective at removing ransomware.
Can you recover files after wiping a ransomware infected computer?
Recovering original files after wiping a ransomware infected computer depends on whether effective backups exist:
- With a recent clean backup – Files can be fully restored to their pre-infection state.
- Without good backups – Files may be permanently lost unless remnants exist.
- From encrypted backups – Recovery may be incomplete if encryption remnants persist.
- Using cloud snapshots – Point-in-time cloud restores may retrieve files.
- With decryption tools – Some ransomware decryptors can recover files from remnants.
- Using file carving – Data recovery tools may find file fragments recoverable.
If the wiping process fully overwrote the storage media, recovery becomes difficult or impossible without good backups. This underscores the importance of maintaining regularly updated backups disconnected from the main system.
Can wiping a hard drive damage it?
Wiping a hard drive does not directly damage the physical drive hardware or internal components. However, there are some risks of damage to consider:
- Degraded sectors – Bad sectors may develop if repeatedly overwritten.
- Lost data – Critical data is permanently deleted if backups are inadequate.
- Accidental wipes – Other connected drives may get unintentionally wiped.
- Excessive wear – Repeated wiping reduces SSD lifespan if drive-erase commands are used.
- Corrupted firmware – Firmware damage is unlikely but can potentially occur.
- Electrostatic discharge – Static electricity if processes are not grounded properly.
- Bad sectors – Can be aggravated if pre-existing weak sectors are overwritten.
Using the proper wiping tools and techniques can help avoid most risks of drive damage during the process.
Wiping the hard drive by reformatting or overwriting can be an effective way to remove ransomware, provided it is done properly with awareness of the limitations. It removes ransomware payloads,encryption artifacts, configuration files, and malware persistence. However, wiping risks permanent data loss without good backups. Also, some advanced ransomware may persist in memory or encrypted backups after wiping. Proper precautions should be taken to prevent reinfection or further spread.
Overall, wiping the hard drive can give a ransomware infected computer a clean slate in cases where encryption makes file recovery difficult or impossible. But it should be done carefully with strict backup protocols and additional remediation steps to clear the infection fully across all potential malware hiding spots. When implemented correctly as part of a broader response, wiping removes core ransomware components so systems can be rebuilt securely after compromise.