Created By: JonnyD on December 30, 2011

Self Destructing Security

An extreme safeguard which destroys the contents unless properly accessed

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It is a fact that no safe can ever be impregnable. Even a meter thick titanium box could be cut through eventually. Security measures are designed with the intent of making any attempted break in so time consuming and recognizable that the thieves will be apprehended before they can succeed. So long as the thieves were somehow able to secure themselves sufficient time and privacy however, there are ways of penetrating just about any physical security.

But while you can't make it impossible for thieves to get in, you can make it impossible to get anything out intact if they don't use the proper access method. So long as its more important that the contents stay out of the wrong hands than in one piece, you setup a failsafe that will destroy the contents before an attempted break in can be completed. The technique also has the advantage of not requiring any staff to check on the security regularly, and so is good for security that will be unattended for long periods.

This is typically used to protect information rather than unique objects, as its easier to have a backup copy so that the loss of any single copy doesn't mean its lost forever. However it can also be found used with unique items that would be dangerous in the wrong hands, under the logic that its better for no-one to have it than the wrong people.


  • n Season 4 of Burn Notice, an important MacGuffin is buried in a graveyard in an airtight container, which also contains highly reactive chemicals that would explode when exposed to the air. Filling the grave with machine oil allows them to get inside safely.
  • In The Da Vinci Code, the cryptex protects its contents with a combination lock. Attempting to force the cryptex open will break the vial of vinegar inside, which would dissolve the papyrus along with its message before it could be read. As a result, only the right password will grand access to the message.
  • In the videogame Uplink one of the security measures you can purchase for your gateway is a self destruct mechanism as a last resort if the Feds are closing in on you. You lose all the hardwear, but get to keep your reputation and avoid being disavowed (ie, gameover).
  • The Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is protected by many layers of secrets, guards and traps. The final resort, however, is that the Grail can never pass beyond "The Great Seal". Doing so results in the entire place self destructing and the Grail being lost forever.
  • Real Life Example: WW2 Uboat codebooks were printed on paper that would dissolve in water. Not only did this make the codebook easy to destroy, even if the crew were killed before they could, an attack on the sub would be very likely to cause the codebooks destruction anyway.
  • The Matthew Reilly short story Altitude Rush (Available in pdf on his website) has documents protected by a self destructing case that will release hydrofloric acid on the papers unless properly accessed. The case also has an altitude sensor that will trigger the self destruct if it goes above 1000 feet or below 10 feet, necessitating the thieves to execute a frantic escape across the NY skyline.

Community Feedback Replies: 10
  • December 30, 2011
    • The pilot episode for the show White Collar features this in the beginning. Peter and his team are attempting to crack open a safe that has a counterfeiter's information in it. If they can get into the safe, they'll have enough evidence to arrest the counterfeiter. Unfortunately, as soon as they crack the safe, an explosive charge destroys everything inside, showing Peter and his men with confetti.
  • December 30, 2011
    • In For Your Eyes Only, Bond's car has an anti-theft measure which blows it up if it's broken into. Considering all the high tech gear in every car Bond drives, you'd think it'd be more to protect those things than the car itself.
  • December 30, 2011
    • In Real Life, U.S. top-secret documents are carried in briefcases that are booby-trapped with oxidizer bricks, which incinerate the documents if the case is opened without the disarm key inserted.
  • December 30, 2011
  • December 31, 2011
    Compare Self Destruct Mechanism, which is used to destroy a much larger area/object around the device and doesn't go off automatically when tampered with.

    • James Bond
      • Goldfinger. Bond's attache case apparently has built-in gadgets similar to the one he used in From Russia With Love. After being captured, he talks to one of Goldfinger's henchwomen on the plane.
      Bond: Did any of my luggage survive with me? And my attache case?
      Mei-Lei: Black attache case damaged when examined. So sorry.
      Bond: Apologies quite unnecessary.

    Tabletop RPG
    • Dungeons And Dragons
      • In early editions the Explosive Runes spell could be used like this. The caster would cast the spell on the object to be protected. If anyone read the runes, they would explode and destroy the object.
      • Played with in the adventure T1-4 The Temple of Elemental Evil. In one room there's a chest with a chlorine gas trap that functions no matter how the PCs try to disarm it. When they open the chest they find what appears to be spell books and a magical scroll that have been partially dissolved by the gas. In fact they were covered with gibberish and therefore worthless - it was just a trick to make the PCs think they had lost a chance to gain valuable items.

    Video Games
    • In Infocom's Enchanter there's an mechanical egg with a scroll inside. No matter how you open it, the egg shreds the scroll so it's unusable. You later get a spell that allows you to reconstitute the scroll and learn the spell on it.
  • December 31, 2011
    • In System Shock 2, if you trigger an ICE node when hacking open a security crate, it sets off a built-in explosive charge, destroying the crate and its contents (and on any difficulty higher than Easy, probably kills you in the process).
  • January 1, 2012
    Tabletop RPG
    • Shadowrun. The Scramble IC program is often used to protect computer datastores with valuable information. If a decker tries to break through the Scramble and fails, it will overwrite the stored information with random characters, rendering it worthless.
    • Dungeons And Dragons module CM1 Test of the Warlords, Encounter 1 "The Ruins of Alinor". The PCs can find a golden box that radiates magic. If they smash or pry open the box, its contents burn up in a flash. If it is unlocked normally or its lock is picked by a thief, they will find two magical scrolls and a diary.
  • January 1, 2012
    The current title makes me think of extremely cost-inefficient and irrational security droids.
  • January 2, 2012
  • January 2, 2012
    In the New Year's Day 2012 Sherlock episode "A Scandal in Belgravia" Irene Adler's phone, containing lots of politically-sensitive data, contains miniature explosives that will destroy it if anyone attempts to physically remove the hard drive.