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Here's an incomplete list of malware exploits that can damage hardware:

  1. Disable fan control software and run the CPU/GPU at full load, causing thermal excursions beyond safe limits. This should be prevented by good control system design, but sometimes isn't.
  2. Disable battery management software, causing improper charge and/or discharge, reducing cycle life. This happened accidentally in the NT based system I mentioned earlier.
  3. Excessively cycling of non-volatile storage elements (EEPROM/Flash/SSD). I've seen this happen accidentally in a small microcontroller where bad code caused a nonvolatile parameter setting in a write cycle limited portion of memory (10,000 cycle guaranteed, 1million typical) to be written once per millisecond instead of once per parameter change (usually no more than a few times during the product's life). Those systems failed during production burn-in. The worn-out components had to be removed and replaced, at significant rework cost. There have been malware attacks on SSDs. Those get harder as systems become more sophisticated.
  4. Hard drive thrashing - I've read of malware that causes hard drive head assemblies to swing to their maximum excursion continuously, causing premature failure. I imagine drive manufacturers look for this sort of behavior now.
  5. Overvoltage - if the variable voltage power supply control software of a modern PC is compromised, excessive voltage can be supplied to things like CPUs, GPUs and memory, causing hardware failure.
  6. Corruption of boot settings to an unrecoverable state. I've had this happen to me in the past and presume it's far less likely to happen in modern systems. I've designed with microcontroller chips that have startup settings that are set using a special hardware debugging port. One of those settings was for the configuration of the chip's operating clock. The factory default setting was to start from the chip's internal clock, which was guaranteed to be present and operating. If you changed that setting to use an external clock, and that clock was not present, the chip simply stopped operating. The only way to get it started again was to either provide a clock source (not possible if the pin on the device was being used for something else) or replace the device. I had a PC motherboard scrapped because the BIOS was corrupted to an un-bootable state and reprogramming it was more expensive than replacing it.
  7. CRT overdrive. Video cards could be (and were) programmed to generate timing that could cause damage to CRT electronics.
  8. Override screen burn-in protection - in systems with display technology subject to objectionable burn in, malware can defeat built in safeguards

Some years back, I purchased a 3D printer. At that time, there was malware in circulation that could damage the hardware in two ways, either by exploiting faults in the control software to ignore limit switches or temperature sensors, causing mechanical damage, or by cycling the stepper motors in unanticipated ways, causing them to overheat.

As manufacturers of computer systems become more savvy, they'll close vulnerabilities. Still, the belief that hardware cannot be damaged by software is founded in considerable ignorance.

Edited by Madelaine McMasters
The usual silly mistakes.
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20 minutes ago, Lyssa Greymoon said:


But in regular use cases, it will almost always be software revealing defective hardware, not breaking it.

For hardware protected by software, as much of it is these days, you are actually revealing defective software, thereby breaking perfectly working hardware. It's often not possible or practical to design intrinsically safe hardware.

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