SSD Security: Understanding security weaknesses of solid-state drives

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SSD security
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Solid-state drives, or SSDs, have become commonplace and are now used in several devices, from laptops to smartphones. SSDs can provide significant performance and reliability gains for at least some applications. However, despite the benefits offered, SSD security concerns remain.

SSDs offer tremendous advantages compared to their traditional counterparts. For instance, SSDs are more resistant to physical damage under rigorous usage conditions due to the absence of moving parts. Access times are often faster, and access latency can be considerably reduced, boosting the speed of read operations.

Below we explore the benefits and security concerns SSDs, focusing on what this means for your business and your data protection efforts.

What is a Solid-State Drive (SSD)?

A solid-state drive (SSD) is a new generation of computer storage devices. SSDs utilize flash-based memory far faster than conventional mechanical hard drives.

An SSD upgrade is one of the most effective ways to speed up your computer.

What are SSDs used for?

SSDs have become an accepted alternative, becoming the default option for many mainstream low-cost computing devices. SSDs provide benefits in the following areas:

  • Business: Access times and file transfer speeds are crucial for businesses with massive data volumes. Hence SSDs are frequently used.
  • Gaming: Gaming computers have constantly tested the boundaries of contemporary computing technology, necessitating the purchase of relatively expensive hardware to improve gaming performance. This is especially true for storage, as modern blockbuster games continually load and save files such as textures, maps, levels, and characters.
  • Mobility: SSDs feature minimal power consumption, enhancing the battery life of laptops and tablets. SSDs are also resistant to shock, which decreases the likelihood of data loss when mobile devices are dropped.
  • Servers: To efficiently serve client computers, enterprise servers require SSDs with fast read and write speeds.

What are the key features of Solid-State Drives?

Several factors distinguish the design of an SSD. Since SSDs have no moving components, they are not susceptible to the mechanical failures that can occur with HDDs.

SSDs are also quieter and use less power. Because SSDs are lighter than hard drives, they are ideal for laptops and mobile computing devices.

What are the advantages of SSDs?

  1. Durability: SSDs have no moving parts. Thus dropping them won’t harm the data. SSDs can better tolerate and handle shock than mechanical HDDs (like dropping the laptop bag). SSDs wear out less since they lack moving parts. SSDs don’t fail mechanically and therefore are more reliable. SSDs are more shock- and temperature-resistant than HDDs.
  2. Less Power Consumption: SSDs use less power than HDDs. SSDs lack moving elements, particularly a motor. This helps laptops and storage computers with low power needs. SSDs use half to a third of HDD power.
  3. Better Reading and Writing Speed: SSDs read and write quicker. SSDs don’t need to spin like HDDs. No actuator arm moves the read/write heads to seek or add data. SSDs provide faster reading and writing speeds because they instantaneously read and write to flash memory chips.
  4. Less Noise: SSDs generate less noise since they employ computer chips rather than moving elements. There is hardly little noise because it is non-mechanical.
  5. Faster Boot and Better Computing Performance:  SSDs provide speedier computer booting because the drive does not need to spin up, enhancing computer performance.

Although the SSD has many advantages, there are certain disadvantages.

SSD Disadvantages:

  1. Price: The most significant downside of a solid-state drive is its high cost. SSDs are more expensive than traditional hard disc drives.
  2. Recovery of Lost Data: SSDs can’t restore old data, which is a drawback. Drives are wiped clean. Permanent data deletion might lead to irreversible problems if there is no backup for lost data.
  3. Storage Capacity: Unlike traditional HDDs, solid-state drives are costly and are offered at a premium. As a result, SSDs are primarily accessible in smaller and more economical storage capacities. The storage capacity is typically less than 160 GB.
  4. Life Expectancy: Some solid-state drives, particularly those that use NAND memory-flash chips, can only be written for a limited time. Although solid-state drives employing DRAM technology do not have this limitation, they are more expensive.
  5. Write/Erase Cycle: The write/erase cycle of an SSD is restricted. An HDD can withstand 1 to 5 million write cycles, whereas an SSD averages 100,000 cycles, implying that SSD performance degrades over time. This restriction on write cycles generates extra problems. On the other hand, data on ordinary hard disc drives can be wiped and overwritten an unlimited number of times.
  6. Write Speed: SSDs can retrieve data quickly, but they take longer to save. The device must first remove the existing data to write new data to the SSD. This is a significant drawback, which most users are unaware of, for data systems involved in the transfer of enormous amounts of data.

Understanding SSD Data Security Concerns

With increased cybersecurity threats, when discarding old computing devices, most businesses will seek to destroy any data on storage devices or the physical asset itself. To destroy data correctly, there are four primary methods of removing it from hard drives:

  1. Deleting or reformatting: Deleting files is the most common technique for erasing data, but It does not delete data permanently from your hard disk. The same holds for reformatting. While these methods make it difficult for the typical individual to find the data, cyber experts can still partially recover it. Merely removing and reformatting will not be enough.
  2. Degaussing: This is a standard, time-tested method for erasing data, although it is ineffective for solid-state drives. SSDs employ integrated circuit assemblies to store data instead of magnetic storage.
  3. Wiping: This method does not alter the physical asset. Wiping is a suitable method for permanently erasing data from a hard drive if you do not wish to damage it. To accomplish total data erasure, information must typically be overwritten multiple times. Typically in wiping, data is overwritten numerous times with other characters like 1 or 0 or random characters.
  4. Shredding/physical destruction.  This method ensures the secure disposal and destruction of HDDs as they are hydraulically crushed or mechanically shredded, so data can never be retrieved or reconstructed. If you don’t want to sell the hard drive again and want to be sure that the data can’t be recovered, shredding is your best option. For this job, it’s a good idea to work with a professional service because they have the right tools and certified experts.

Data sanitation regulatory requirements
Several state and federal regulations include provisions for data sanitization and disposal. For example, PCI DSS 9.10 states that storage media must be destroyed when they are no longer required for business or legal reasons.

PCI-DSS is designed to ensure that cardholder data on electronic media is rendered unrecoverable through a secure wipe program that adheres to industry-accepted standards for secure deletion or physically destroying the medium.

Similarly, HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, mandates formal documentation of disposal procedures to ensure that health information is adequately sanitized before being deleted.

When selecting how to dispose of or destroy data securely, it is vital to consider the kind of media, the sensitivity of the data being disposed of or destroyed, the end-of-life value of the data asset, and all applicable information security frameworks and regulatory requirements.

Why can’t standard data erasure methods be used to erase data on an SSD securely?

Many organizations may seek to redeploy mobile devices; therefore, shredding or physically destroying a computing device or the associated SSD may not be viable.

As such, this is where SSDs security concerns arise. If an SSD-based mobile device cannot be physically destroyed, then to effectively destroy the data, you have to wipe, degauss or reformat/delete the data.

Traditional storage mediums, such as mechanical hard drives or tape-based storage, have physical storage written to magnetic media and may thus be deleted using instruments such as degaussers, which employ powerful magnets to wipe the disks. Since SSDs do not utilize conventional magnetic storage, degaussing will be unsuccessful at removing any data stored on solid-state drives.

Similarly, and as already mentioned, simply deleting or reformatting the data is a non-permanent solution for secure data removal.

SSDs execute “wear leveling” tasks, which remove specific areas of the disk from use. However, these decommissioned sections may still contain data. Wiping a drive with programs does not write to these sectors, resulting in data remanence. SSDs must be erased differently because of these two concerns.

Secure Erase vs. Sanitize

Secure Erase and Sanitize safely erase the SSD data and return it to its factory settings. After performing a Sanitize or Secure Erase on an SSD, all data is destroyed and cannot be recovered. There are, however, differences between these methods:

  • Secure Erase only deletes the mapping table, not all written-to blocks
  • Sanitize, on the other hand, will delete the mapping table and erase any previously written blocks

Secure Erase is quicker to perform than Sanitize. However, not all SSDs support Sanitize.

Using Encryption to Erase a Solid-State Drive

Encrypting an SSD’s entire disk renders all its data unreadable without the corresponding decryption key. By formatting the disc and removing the encryption key, the SSD can be safely discarded without the risk of retaining data.

As encryption becomes more complex, it becomes more read/write and CPU-intensive, slowing down a computer’s processing. Here comes SSDs’ speed advantage. Encryption/decryption computations are faster when data can be written or read quickly.

Today, most operating systems provide encryption capabilities to help secure an SSD, such as Windows Bitlocker or FileVault on macOS.

SSD Security: Securely erasing data from Solid State Drives

Since solid-state drives (SSDs) store their data on flash memory chips instead of a spinning disc, they have unique criteria for data deletion. This alternative storing option may raise additional security problems when wiping or destroying data.

Consider the following options for the secure destruction and disposal of data held on solid-state drives (SSDs):

  1. Built-In Sanitization Commands: Sanitization is the process of irreversibly removing or destroying data stored on a memory device (hard drives, flash memory / SSDs, mobile devices, etc.). However, not all SSDs support sanitization.
  2. Encryption: Encrypting an SSD’s entire disk and removing the encryption key is the only true way to ensure data cannot be recovered.
  3. Physical Destruction – This method ensures the secure disposal and destruction of SSDs as they are hydraulically crushed or mechanically shredded, so that data can never be retrieved or reconstructed. However, many mobile devices have “hard-wired” SSDs, requiring the entire device to be physically destroyed.
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