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Self-Destructing Security

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"Tenno, be on the lookout for increased security measures. The enemy would rather destroy their data than let it get into our hands."

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 it's more important that the contents stay out of the wrong hands than in one piece, you can set up 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 it's easier to have a backup copy so that the loss of any single copy doesn't mean it's lost forever. However, it can also be found used with unique items that would be dangerous in the wrong hands, under the logic that it's better for no-one to have it than the wrong people.

Compare Self-Destruct Mechanism, which is typically deliberately triggered by the owner of vehicles, buildings, and bases, and This Page Will Self-Destruct where messages self-destruct on a timer to avoid falling into the wrong hands, rather than being triggered by an attempted theft.

See also Booby Trap, whose intent is to destroy the thief rather than the loot. When this technique is used by a person to kill themselves to avoid torture/giving up secrets, that's Cyanide Pill. If said person is wired to kill themselves involuntarily before they divulge important data, it's Involuntary Suicide Mechanism instead.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Death Note: Light goes to great lengths to protect the Death Note. Not only is it hidden in his locked bedroom in a secret panel of his desk drawer, but opening the panel without first deactivating the failsafe will incinerate the notebook before it can be found. After all, if someone else takes it he's unlikely to get it back, and it links him to hundreds of murders. If it's incinerated, all he has to deal with is a house fire, which someone as smart as Light could come up with explanations for, and it would remove any and all proof linking him to the murders.
  • Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, in the sixth episode, "Prison of Love": The pendant Fujiko steals from Oscar is locked by a code (Ze-Ni-Ga-Ta), and the wrong code will destroy the other half of the thesis.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion: In the flashback episode devoted to the beginnings of NERV, Fuyutsuki is seen carrying a briefcase with a self-destruct almost identical to the UFO (1970) example below.

    Comic Books 
  • Batman has this on his Batmobile. He has a number of deterrents to prevent crooks from jacking the Batmobile, up to five levels. The fifth level being detonating the Batmobile. Batman nearly became a victim of this in the final part of the Knightfall storyline, KnightsEnd when he attempts to use the Batmobile to hunt down the rogue "Az-Bats" Jean-Paul Valley and it ends up blowing up on him. The incident causes Nightwing to go on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge on Jean-Paul, but Robin later finds out Bats is safe. Turns out he realized that Valley did the same thing he would have - just not that deadly. Even Batman's Utility Belt is sometimes equipped with self-destructive measures in case it was taken.
  • Judge Dredd has a variant of this in the Lawgiver pistol. The weapon has a built-in identification device that scans the user's fingerprints for the right ID. If the person's profile doesn't match the DNA for the Lawgiver, the weapon triggers a built-in explosive device that severs the entire weapon and the limb of the wrong person attempting to use it.

    Film — Animated 
  • In Treasure Planet, the planet itself has a self-destruct booby trap that will activate should anyone finds Captain Flint's treasure hoard. The trigger is right at the entrance to the main vault, so by the time the average person realizes there is a trap, they're screwed.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • In Dredd, as in its source material, a Judge's Lawgiver conducts a DNA scan whenever it's picked up. If the scan fails, the gun explodes. Kay ends up losing his right arm when he commits the grave error of trying to kill Anderson with her own gun.
  • 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.
  • In The Italian Job (2003) the villain's big safe has a piece of glass inside the door; if the glass breaks—and drilling into the safe will almost definitely achieve this—the lock's tumblers will be unable to rotate properly and the safe will be permanently sealed. (Truth in Television for many higher-end safes—it's called a glass relocker.) Doesn't actually destroy the gold inside, but the safe is huge; if you have the tools to rip the door off, doing so would have been your first option, not second. Charlize Theron's character ends up opening it the old-fashioned way, by listening and feeling out the combination, a skill she inherited from her late father.
  • James Bond
    • From Russia with Love: Bond's attaché case has numerous built-in gadgets, including a magnetically-attached tear gas canister stored inside. Opening the case without first rotating the clasps triggers the grenade and gives any would-be snoop a face full of the gas. This turns out to be just the edge Bond needs when held at gunpoint by Red Grant, whose greed Bond uses to trick him into opening the case.
    • Goldfinger: As a Shout-Out, it's implied that Bond's case still has similar defensive measures in the following film, even though they're never explicitly mentioned. 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 attaché case?
    Mei-Lei: Black attaché case damaged when examined. So sorry.
    Bond: Apologies quite unnecessary.
    • For Your Eyes Only: Bond's Lotus Esprit has an anti-theft measure which blows it up if it's broken into, forcing Bond to flee the pursuing villains in a beat-up Citroën 2CV. Considering all the high-tech gear in every car Bond drives, it's probably more to protect those things than the car itself.
      • The top secret A.T.A.C. device has one of these, but the crew on the Spy Ship drown before they can activate it, setting off the plot. Bond has to disarm the device before removing it, and later uses the bomb to blow up a mook in a JIM suit.
  • The Score: Similar to the above, one of the greatest obstacles in the heist to retrieve a scepter from the inside of the Montreal Customs House is the top-of-the-line safe that holds it, that has glass packing so it can't be drilled, otherwise additional tumblers will fall into place and seal it completely shut. Nick, the thief, goes around this by drilling a side of the safe, filling the inside with water and then setting off an explosive, causing the water expansion to rip the door open.
    Nick Wells: (On what happens if the packing breaks). You're fucked. You can't break it open with a bulldozer.

  • The A.I. Gang: Black Glove's transmitters are all set up with this feature to prevent them from being investigated and tracking them back to the source. The first time, he manually smashes the receiver, causing it to send a signal that causes the transmitter to disintegrate. The second time, a larger transmitter does the same on discovery, disintegrating and leaving burn marks on Rachel's hands (as she was holding it at the time), which still tingle months later whenever she remembers the incident. A third that Black Glove planted in Euterpe's rocket is actually seen by others before disintegrating, and a fourth explodes in a big way in Forever Begins Tomorrow, taking a shark with it ( which turns out to be a robot sent to guard the transmitter).
  • The Matthew Reilly short story "Altitude Rush" (Available in pdf on his website) has documents protected by a self destructing case that will release hydrofluoric 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.
  • Mentioned in the Artemis Fowl series. After pulling off a heist for a painting, Artemis checks for pyrophoric/explosive chemicals in the storage tube, in case the person he's stealing from is particularly spiteful.
  • In Atlas Shrugged, John Galt protects the shed containing his utopia's power source (a Perpetual Motion Machine) and his secret laboratory in his obscure flat in New York City in such a way that anyone trying to break into the rooms or force the locks will cause everything in the rooms to disintegrate into dust by the time they get the door open. How? Who is John Galt?
  • An anti-handling device kills some MI5 safecrackers in the Bernard Samson Series. According to the mission post-mortem, the confines of the safe turned the document destruction device into an accidental bomb. However there's also the possibility that it was a Booby Trap meant to kill Bernard Samson.
  • In the Tom Clancy novel The Cardinal Of The Kremlin, the information from the title spy would be typed up in the American Embassy on flash paper and inserted into a container which would ignite if anyone tried to mess with it. It was then transported by diplomatic couriernote  to CIA headquarters, where it was disarmed in the office of the CIA Director.
    • It's mentioned a couple of times that with the case actually in the courier's breast pocket (it looks like a cigarette case), if it went off, the courier would likely be set on fire.
    • One of the later books mentions that this practice has been done away with because it was too easy to set them off by accident, and nowadays couriers are simply given CD-Rs (and later Flash drives) protected by the best file encryption the CIA's considerable R&D budget can buy.
  • In Carter Beats The Devil, the plans for the prototype television are in a safe set to spill acid on the plans if the wrong combination is set three times.
  • The Dark is Rising series novel The Dark is Rising. The Book of Gramarye is kept in a grandfather clock with a magical security mechanism. If the Book touches the clock's pendulum while it's being removed or returned, it is totally destroyed. The same thing will occur if an Old One tries to remove the book and they're not touching a specific human beingnote  at the time.
  • 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 grant access to the message. This is a case of Artistic License – Chemistry; vinegar isn't a powerful enough solvent to dissolve papyrus, which is fairly sturdy stuff. It won't even smudge most of the inks the Egyptians used.
  • In Diamond Dogs, the characters are trying to get to the top of a deadly tower to see what secrets it holds. The reason they don't just cut open the tower from orbit is that they suspect the tower — which is heavily implied to be alive in some sense — might destroy its own secrets in such a scenario.
  • The Doctor Who Past Doctor Adventures novel Palace of the Red Sun features the royal family of the planet Esselven hampering the conquest of Protector Glavis Judd by sealing the last copies of important documents necessary to run the planet in a Radzell and Styne Maxima Vault, a truly impregnable safe. As described by one of Judd’s engineers, the vault has its own internal power source, collapsium-lined walls reinforced by internal fields and an external force shield, with any explosive force capable of breaching the walls triggering a self-destruct mechanism in the vault itself. The only way to open the vault is with a DNA body scan that will respond to the person whose DNA has been programmed into the system, although certain versions will respond to people in the same family. This forces Judd to put his campaign on hold to find the Esselven royals so that he can retrieve the vital official documents held within the vault, all of which are unique items required to run the planet properly such as trade agreements or computer codes for key systems.
  • In The Dresden Files the stolen Shroud of Turin is kept like this, with a remote to deactivate the security. In this case it's a precaution against the seller being subjected to You Have Outlived Your Usefulness after handing it over.
  • In Jeffery Kooistra's Dykstra's War, the eponymous Dykstra receives a thumbprint-coded package that, if accessed by the wrong person, will explode with sufficient force to take out the whole building. Clearly one wants to be very careful about checking the address labels.
  • In Harry Harrison's The Ethical Engineer (second book of the Deathworld series), Jason crash-lands on a Lost Colony where remains of technology are venerated with a religious-like fervor by various clans/cities. One of them builds primitive cars and have booby-trapped the engines should someone attempt to open and reverse-engineer them (or repair them - they make the cars so that they break after a few months). Jason is trying to break the monopoly and allow progress, currently working for the group making petroleum (to run said cars). He tries to make an impression by making repairs to one car. One of the traps (poison gas canisters) is triggered by attempting to remove the screws holding the cover. Jason figures out that the screws are deliberately threaded the wrong way (i.e. you have to turn clockwise instead of counterclockwise). Attempting to turn counterclockwise tightens them and smashes the canisters. He then defeats another trigger mechanism by using melting ice to slowly lower the engine from the housing. The reason he can't build a crude vehicle without reverse-engineering it is because no one in his time remembers how an internal combustion engine is supposed to work.
  • In Firestarter, Rainbird recalls his safecracking teacher emphasising that you only beat a safe if you manage to extract its contents unharmed. If you end up destroying the valuables inside in the process of getting to them, then the safe has won.
  • Robert A. Heinlein's The Number of the Beast. Computer software expert Deety mentions that if anyone except herself attempts to access her college computer account it would show them her "clean" financial records while secretly deleting the "dirty" copy.
  • In the finale to the third book to the Saga of the Grey Death Legion trilogy (part of the BattleTech Expanded Universe), the planet Helm was the site of a secret Star League weapons depot 300 years ago. The GDL manages to open the vault using a ceremonial data slate given to the planetary governor, while the pursuing House Marik company are forced to breach it using explosives, causing the facility to enter a self-destruct mode. A buried fusion reactor heats up underwater lakes, causing them to boil off and explode through the surface, returning the mysteriously vanished sea to Helm's surface and destroying the facility in the process. Luckily, the GDL managed to save a copy of the Star League library in the facility and its cache of Lost Technology specifications.

    Live Action TV 
  • In 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 a very early episode of Doctor Who, the First Doctor explains that if anyone tries to unlock the TARDIS doors without the proper key, the lock mechanism will destroy itself and render the doors permanently unopenable, thus preventing anyone from stealing the TARDIS. It was never mentioned again.
  • In Farscape, the ancient Luxan ship is equipped with a self-destructing security mechanism powerful enough to blow up the ship it's parked in. Thankfully, it also loops through a vocal message explaining how to defuse it: It requires any one of three keys only a Luxan is supposed to have; Qualta blades are one of them.
  • In La Femme Nikita, some sensitive information is stored on shadow drives — hard drives which must be read backwards, or they will erase their data.
  • In the game show Fort Boyard, the paper bearing the clue word is automatically incinerated if the contestant fails to find it in time.
  • 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, or enters the wrong passcode too many times. Upon hearing this, Mycroft immediately suggests they simply destroy the device: after all, the government wants to keep anyone else from getting the data, not get it themselves. Irene counters that's only a good idea if the phone doesn't also contain vital information the government will want, and she refuses to say if it does or not.
    • A variation on that is actually done in the Season 3 ending where Sherlock kills Charles Augustus Magnussen, all of whose blackmail information is in his head, to prevent him from revealing Mary's secret identity. In retrospect, it was probably a mistake for Magnussen to reveal this to Sherlock.
  • In an episode of Stargate SG-1, when Jack O'Neill and Harry Maybourne were investigating Senator Robert Kinsey, Maybourne accesses his computer, but not before inserting a Magic Floppy Disk from within a bag in an otherwise empty fridge. He states that if somebody tried to start his computer without the floppy, he'd burn the hard disk.
  • In the first episode of UFO (1970), Colonel Straker is carrying a briefcase chained to his wrist with taped evidence of a Flying Saucer. When a British minister wants to look at the contents, Straker flicks a catch hidden under a nameplate, exposing the words DESTRUCT NEGATIVE, before opening the briefcase. Unfortunately the aliens who subsequently attack the vehicle are more interested in destroying this evidence than stealing it.
  • 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.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Dark Matter
    • Sandmen, the nanite-infused slaves of the etoile, are disassembled at the molecular level after death, making it difficult to learn more about them. One adventure in Dungeon Magazine featured a gunrunner who was somehow able to preserve a Sandman head, and the players having to extract him and keep the head in one piece before the Sandmen came to clean up any loose ends.
    • The equipment manual states that the their portable xenoform data computers (This manual published years before tablets and smartphones) were password locked, and the computer would wipe all data and destroy its internals to protect itself if the incorrect password was entered twice. The entry suggests agents do not attempt to unlock them if they are feeling even slightly out of it.
  • Dungeons & Dragons
    • Basic D&D 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.
    • 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 and whatever it contained.
    • Occurs in the adventure T1-4 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.
  • Hot Chicks RPG. Escorts from the Arcturus Escort Corporation have built-in cybernetic data recorders to capture their clients' secrets. If anyone tries to tamper with an escort's recorder it overloads, destroying the stored data and killing the escort.
  • Shadowrun.
    • Matrix software
      • 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.
      • A decker tries to disarm a Data Bomb protecting a file and fails. If the Data Bomb was programmed to do so, it will erase the file it was protecting.

    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.
  • In Minecraft, Desert Temples contain a room with four treasure chests, each containing rare and valuable loot. At the center of the room, however, is a pressure plate linked to nine blocks of TNT hidden beneath the floor. One must tread carefully, because if exploded, the TNT will destroy the chests and everything inside, and probably kill the player as well.
  • In the Resident Evil 2 (Remake), the G-Virus sample is stored deep inside Umbrella's hidden laboratory. If it's removed without authorization, the entire lab is then set to blow up so that the virus doesn't spread outside as well as preventing anyone from stealing it.
  • Downplayed in The Riddle of Master Lu: When Ripley finally grabs the MacGuffin from the tomb of the first emperor of China, he finds out that Master Lu had some final mechanism designed to keep it from falling to the wrong hands whose secret Ripley didn't uncover, and which causes liquid mercury to start flooding the place. It happens so slowly you can just walk away, so it should be useless, but it just happens that the game's last villain shows up to slow Ripley's escape and ends up taking the MacGuffin with him as he gets flooded by the mercury, effectively helping the mechanism do what it was supposed to do.
  • 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).
  • In 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 hardware, but get to keep your reputation and avoid being disavowed.
  • Spy missions in Warframe task you with breaking into a number of secure facilities to retrieve sensitive data from the terminals inside, eluding various security mechanisms as you go. Being detected by security will trigger a destruction program on the terminal, giving you a strict time limit to reach your target and retrieve the data before it's lost. Mobile Defense missions, meanwhile, have a different form of self-destruction: alerting swarms of guards to shoot at the computer you're hacking in an attempt at physically destroying it, requiring you to kill them before they can inflict too much damage to the machine.
  • XCOM 2 has timed Guerilla Ops missions, most of which involve attempting to secure some piece of ADVENT materiel. Unfortunately, while you begin the mission in stealth, ADVENT uses latent psychic detection to sense your intent and rigs their devices to burn out in an uncomfortably short number of turns—usually eight, but sometimes as low as six. Your challenge is to clear the space between your entry point and the objective in that handful of turns and get away with the goods before go up in smoke. The low turn count precludes a defensive wait-and-see strategy reliant on overwatch and forces you to get aggressive.

    Western Animation 
  • Star Trek: The Animated Series episode "The Slaver Weapon". The title device had an Artificial Intelligence computer programmed to make sure its user was a Slaver authorized to operate it. When the Kzinti that found it asked ignorant questions of it, it assumed that it had been captured by its master's enemies and tricked them into activating a self-destruct setting which destroyed it... and them.
  • In Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2012), Donatello has a failsafe on the T-Phone (their personal communicators and cell phone service), just in case. If anyone yells "T-Phone, Self-destruct", the tech inside will blow out, making getting any information off the phone impossible.

    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.
  • 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 do so, an attack on the sub would be very likely to cause the codebooks' destruction anyway. That didn't stop the Allies from seizing half a dozen of them.
    • Most naval codebooks by the Second World War were printed in ink that would run when it was wet, primarily because the practice of NOT doing so had been very costly to Imperial Germany in World War I. Most of the major navies also went so far as to put the majority of their "secret" writings and maps (for example those that showed the locations of their minefields) in the same ink. The only major navy which did not follow either practice was the Imperial Japanese Navy. They had ample cause to regret this decision during the war.
  • Modern ATMs have devices designed to contaminate the entire monetary content with a permanent dye rendering the money unusable if anyone breaks into one. The machine's owners can exchange the money at the country's central bank, but anyone trying to pass dyed notes in everyday life will attract law enforcement attention in no time. Likewise, if a robber tries to steal money from a teller's till, the teller can pass over money that has a hidden dye pack that will explode after leaving the bank to brand both the money and the robber. Most clothing stores also use a similar method by attaching an ink tag on all articles of clothing that requires removal by a store employee before being sold to the customer. Anyone that tries to remove the tag by force will cause the tag to rupture, which will stain the clothe and make them worthless to wear or sell on the black market.
  • iOS devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch) have an option to erase all content on the device after ten failed passcode attempts. You can also destroy a device's data manually, if it's using an iCloud account that you have access to. This became a point of contention when, in 2015, the FBI attempted to decrypt a mass-shooting suspect's iPhone to find evidence and requested that Apple install a backdoor into their phones that allows government agencies to decrypt such devices without fear of hitting the 10-attempt limit.
  • A relocker is a mechanism built into many safes which permanently jams the door if tripped. A common type is a glass plate inside the door of the safe, which releases a spring-loaded relocker if it breaks (i.e. if someone tries to drill out the lock). The contents of the safe are usually unharmed, but can only be retrieved by cutting the whole safe open, making them effectively impossible to access in the short term.
  • A decidedly more lethal take on this trope is the concept of an anti-handling device, a feature of some land mines that has the function of detonating the mine if it's dug up, tilted, or otherwise disturbed. The goal is to force the enemy's minesweepers into a Wire Dilemma-type situation by making land mines much more complicated and dangerous to disarm. However, such devices also have the unfortunate trait that they can't tell enemy minesweepers from friendly ones, nor from civilians; quite a lot of innocent people have been killed by accidentally triggering long-dormant mines.


Video Example(s):


Crossing the Seal

Elsa, when she is hanging over the fissure created, she tries to grab the grail, ignores Indiana's pleas to give him her other hand and winds up falling to her death for her greed. Henry Sr. notes that she didn't really view the Grail as a holy relic, just an amazing historical artifact.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (7 votes)

Example of:

Main / DeathByMaterialism

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