Apparently You Can Hard Brick SD Cards

December 29, 2019 #raspberry-pi

Recently, I was attempting to setup a Raspberry Pi Zero W with the latest Raspbian Buster Lite image and ran into an … uh … issue. After dropping in an empty ssh file and a wpa_supplicant.conf to enable headless access over WiFi, I logged in, expanded the filesystem to the full SD card capacity (16 gigs in my case), rebooted and then ran the normally innocuous

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get upgrade

The update seemed to run fine, but then the upgrade felt much longer than I remember in the past. Everything appeared to still be going okay until the output started complaining that something went wrong when installing a package. I wish I had captured the log, but I didn’t. Anyway, the SSH connection dropped, and my subsequent attempts to reconnect were met with the message that my connection was refused by the remote host. My next move was to reboot — by power cycling, which may have not been advisable…

After reconnecting the power USB cable, the activity light didn’t come one. Oh no. I tried the SD card in another Pi Zero W and still had no luck. At this point, I figured I could just reflash the drive. I popped the card in my laptop and tried flashing with Etcher, but got a permissions error. After probably a half hour of DISKPART desperation from the command line and googling, I realized that I had likely bricked the SD card. Apparently, the cards have a hardware write-protect bit which kicks in when the contents might be corrupted in an attempt to preserve any data. It was a fresh install, so it didn’t really help me here. But, hey, Samsung class 10 32 gig cards have dropped to barely $6 on Amazon, so I guess it’s not the end of the world.

Not sure how to prevent this from happening again, so let’s hope it’s a fluke. I guess I could use a monitor so I’m not so dependent on maintaining the SSH network connection.


Written by Matthew Russell who follows Jesus, studies machine learning at the University of Kentucky, and interns at NASA. Get to know him or check out his projects on GitHub.