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Degaussing is the process of decreasing or eliminating a remnant magnetic field. It is named after the gauss, a unit of magnetism, which in turn was named after Carl Friedrich Gauss. Due to magnetic hysteresis, it is generally not possible to reduce a magnetic field completely to zero, so degaussing typically induces a very small “known” field referred to as bias. Degaussing was originally applied to reduce ships’ magnetic signatures during World War II. Degaussing is also used to reduce magnetic fields in cathode ray tube monitors and to destroy data held on magnetic storage.

Data is stored in the magnetic media, such as hard drives, floppy disks, and magnetic tape, by making very small areas called magnetic domains change their magnetic alignment to be in the direction of an applied magnetic field. This phenomenon occurs in much the same way a compass needle points in the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field. Degaussing, commonly called erasure, leaves the domains in random patterns with no preference to orientation, thereby rendering previous data unrecoverable. There are some domains whose magnetic alignment is not randomized after degaussing. The information these domains represent is commonly called magnetic remanence or remanent magnetization. Proper degaussing will ensure there is insufficient magnetic remanence to reconstruct the data.

Erasure via degaussing may be accomplished in two ways: in AC erasure, the medium is degaussed by applying an alternating field that is reduced in amplitude over time from an initial high value (i.e., AC powered); in DC erasure, the medium is saturated by applying a unidirectional field (i.e., DC powered or by employing a permanent magnet). A degausser is a device that can generate a magnetic field for degaussing magnetic storage media.

 

Irreversible damage to some media types

Many forms of generic magnetic storage media can be reused after degaussing, including reel-to-reel audio tape, VHS videocassettes, and floppy disks. These older media types are simply a raw medium which are overwritten with fresh new patterns, created by fixed-alignment read/write heads.

For certain forms of computer data storage, however, such as modern hard disk drives and some tape drives, degaussing renders the magnetic media completely unusable and damages the storage system. This is due to the devices having an infinitely variable read/write head positioning mechanism which relies on special servo control data (e.g. Gray Code) that is meant to be permanently embedded into the magnetic media. This servo data is written onto the media a single time at the factory using special-purpose servo writing hardware.

The servo patterns are normally never overwritten by the device for any reason and are used to precisely position the read/write heads over data tracks on the media, to compensate for sudden jarring device movements, thermal expansion, or changes in orientation. Degaussing indiscriminately removes not only the stored data but also the servo control data, and without the servo data the device is no longer able to determine where data is to be read or written on the magnetic medium. The medium must be low-level formatted to become usable again; with modern hard drives, this is generally not possible without manufacturer-specific and often model-specific service equipment.

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