Our old tape drives have failed and we not using tapes for backup anymore. We still have a stack of DLT tapes with backups which may contain sensitive information like credit card numbers, social security numbers, etc.

How do I responsibly dispose of these backup tapes?

If I had a working drive I would be tempted to dd from /dev/urandom to the tape device, but the drives have failed. Would this be a good method if the drive was still working? What do you recommend I do with these tapes given that I have no working drive for them?

  • 3
    Depending on the type of data on those tapes, are you sure you want to get rid of them immediately? You might check with accounting to ensure that they don't include data that might be requested by the IRS/[Insert Revenue or Regulatory Service]. For example you usually need to keep financials for 7 years - if you get audited, all you need to do if buy/rent a new drive to recover the data.
    – David
    Commented May 5, 2009 at 16:54
  • @David, thanks, but in this case the tapes haven't been used for over 4 years, and I am sure our archival data exists in other locations.
    – Zoredache
    Commented May 5, 2009 at 17:24

8 Answers 8


You could read the Guidelines for Media Sanitization (PDF) of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Reel and Cassette Format Magnetic Tapes

Clear magnetic tapes by either re-recording (overwriting) or degaussing. Clearing a magnetic tape by re-recording (overwriting) may be impractical for most applications since the process occupies the tape transport for excessive time periods. Clearing by Overwriting: Overwriting should be performed on a system similar to the one that originally recorded the data. For example, overwrite previously recorded classified or sensitive VHS format video signals on a comparable VHS format recorder. All portions of the magnetic tape should be overwritten one time with known non-sensitive signals.

Degauss using an NSA/CSS-approved degausser. Purging by Degaussing: Purge the magnetic tape in any degausser that can purge the signal enough to prohibit playback of the previous known signal. Purging by degaussing can be accomplished easier by using an NSA/CSS-approved degausser for the magnetic tape.

  • Incinerate by burning the tapes in a licensed incinerator
  • Shred

Preparatory steps, such as removing the tape from the reel or cassette prior to destruction, are unnecessary. However, segregation of components (tape and reels or cassettes) may be necessary to comply with the requirements of a destruction facility or for recycling measures.


May I suggest Thermite?

  • 8
    +1 to anyone who mentions Thermite for any reason.
    – cop1152
    Commented Jun 12, 2009 at 12:25
  • +1 to both of you :-D
    – Bigbio2002
    Commented Apr 6, 2012 at 14:43

Fire is your friend.

  • I like that option :-) Commented Jun 12, 2009 at 11:43
  • 2
    I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure :)
    – Chopper3
    Commented Jun 12, 2009 at 14:12
  • 5
    Plastic emits toxic fumes when burned.
    – Les
    Commented Sep 29, 2009 at 18:44
  • 3
    And sites emit radioactive particles when nuked from orbit.
    – MadHatter
    Commented Apr 6, 2012 at 16:05

If the number of tapes is reasonable (<100) then there are any number of ways to permanently destroy them. Be creative.

If the number of tapes is much greater (>500) then I would contact a shredding company. Even if they don't handle tape media I'm sure they would have knowledge of those who would.

  • 1
    i liked the original answer better :)
    – warren
    Commented Oct 1, 2009 at 12:59
  • I didn't have enough characters left to hum out the theme song so..... :)
    – JohnyD
    Commented Oct 1, 2009 at 17:30

I'll tell you what we do

1- 2 minutes on the degaussing machine 2- sharp scissors and about 20 minutes to make confetti. alternately, a good office shredder.


When I first took over at my current job, we had well over 100 old backup tapes. I borrowed a huge magnet from the hardware store, the kind on wheels that is used to roll through a yard to pickup nails after a re-shingle. Anyway, I zapped them all with that. Then tossed them into the trash

I have always read that would work, but I havent tested it. I probably should have spot-tested a couple of them.

  • Edit: Can confirm this works. I used the set of magnets from an old hard drive. Strong as hell. Tested on VCR, Floppy, and Travon 20 GB Data Cartridge. All the data was corrupted.
    – user9517
    Commented Mar 28, 2012 at 14:51

Not that this answers the question as asked by the OP, but for the benefits of anyone else reading this question, easy disposal is one of the fringe benefits of encrypting my backups: when I need to dispose of the tape, I tear the first few inches of tape off to make casual scanning difficult, then drop the rest into any old bin.


I was given a faulty 12" 1000W speaker with large heavy magnet. I put 4 tapes on at a time. Leave overnight. Strip the first 3 feet off by hand then bin them. Try your local disco equipment center for faulty speaker, should be able to get one with exposed magnets for £5. PS The tapes were encrypted.

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