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Windows 7: ATA password question

14 Aug 2018   #1
F22 Simpilot

Windows 7 Ultimate x64
ATA password question

I've owned nothing but Dell laptops and with most of them I set the ATA password for the HDD in BIOS. My newest laptop, a Latitude E6530 has an option to erase data if the default password is supplied. I was wondering what type of erasure is used? Is it perhaps a simple format? I'm thinking that's probably what it is.

I encrypt my computers anyway, but the ATA password is extra security pertaining to the Evil Maid hack.

My System SpecsSystem Spec
15 Aug 2018   #2

Windows 7/8.1/10 multiboot

Quote   Quote: Originally Posted by F22 Simpilot View Post
I set the ATA password for the HDD in BIOS. My newest laptop, a Latitude E6530 has an option to erase data if the default password is supplied. I was wondering what type of erasure is used? Is it perhaps a simple format?
I'm not familiar with exactly what your BIOS options are, but if the erasure is controlled by the BIOS, it's almost certainly going to be via an ATA/ATAPI command.

It won't be a "simple format" because (this may sound a little pedantic) you "format" file systems, not disks or partitions. And ATA/ATAPI commands do not deal with disk sectors on the partition or file system level, they deal with sectors as a part of the whole disk drive unit.

If you want to learn a bit more about this, take a look the official ATA/ATAPI standard, particularly Section 4.18.6. Disk utilities can issue specific ATA commands to the drive unit's onboard controller, such as "SECURITY SET PASSWORD" and "SECURITY ERASE UNIT", which will invoke built-in routines in the drive controller itself.

When you (via the BIOS or a utility program) invoke the ATA "SECURITY SET PASSWORD" command, the password is set on the drive unit itself. The security is not dependent on the BIOS or Windows or some program, it is integral to the drive. Removing the unit to another host computer won't help because the password is still in the unit. It can only be unlocked by having the unit's controller unlock itself.

Similarly, when you invoke the ATA "SECURITY ERASE UNIT" command the drive controller will do the erasing itself, so it will not be dependent on some external program to step through the sectors and tell the controller to overwrite each one.

There are some ramifications to be aware of, depending on which method (ATA vs. external program) you use:
  • An external program (such as DBAN) can perform repeated overwrites using a variety of data patterns to get what you've probably heard of as "DOD-level" erasures. It's debatable whether that's actually necessary, but if it matters to you, keep that in mind. In contrast, I believe the ATA command does a single-pass overwrite. Note that the purpose of multi-pass overwrites is targeting residual magnetism on the disk platters, so this issue is only relevant to magnetic disk drives, not SSDs.

  • The ATA command may be more likely to reach all the sectors--particularly on SSDs, where TRIM and "over-provisioning" can hide blocks of sectors from external programs. The controller constantly remaps which blocks are visible to the outside world, and external programs can't touch blocks they don't see.

  • Since SSDs don't really store 1's and 0's (the cells are either set or not set), external programs could be harder on a SSD by trying to write 1's and 0's. In response to an ATA erase command, OTOH, an SSD's controller can simply issue a reset command to each block and be done with it, without extra write cycles.

  • The ATA command, if implemented properly by the drive manufacturer, will erase the entire disk, including any HPA ("Host Protected Area"). See Section 4.5 of the ATA/ATAPI reference. Some computer manufacturers (notably, Dell and IBM/Lenovo) have in the past used hidden HPAs to hide their own custom utilities. When an HPA is created, external utilities will think the disk is smaller than it really is because part of its capacity will be squirreled away by the controller, and so those utilities often won't be able to erase the HPA part of the disk.
Hope this helps give you some background information to go on.
My System SpecsSystem Spec
15 Aug 2018   #3
F22 Simpilot

Windows 7 Ultimate x64

Okay, thanks. I guess it's like what Parted Magic does to erase SSDs.

I am familiar with DBAN.
My System SpecsSystem Spec


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