For many fans of the classic Mission: Impossible television series of the late sixties and early seventies, the best part came in the first five minutes, when the tape giving the assignment dissolved into a cloud of gray smoke. It’s an attractive concept for anyone who deals with sensitive information: If your data is in danger of being stolen, have it self-destruct.

A growing number of products make the idea a reality for lost or stolen laptops, PDAs, and cell phones. Some software will wipe clean a hard drive or memory card that falls into the wrong hands. Some hard drives have a so-called poison pill to physically destroy the drive if it has been tampered with.

These technologies can certainly help big businesses that lose devices containing important corporate data. But you don’t need to work at a large company to see the benefit: Just imagine a thief prowling through the account information and passwords you store on a portable device.

Solutions

Until recently only large corporations could get such products. Now, however, versions for individuals and small businesses are starting to appear. Absolute Software , which makes Lojack for Laptops, will add a remote-kill feature to the next version of the program, so if a portable is stolen, the firm will be able to send a command to wipe out specific files — or even the entire contents of the hard drive.

Two companies make software for PDA smart phones that wipe the device’s memory upon receipt of a special SMS text message. Bluefish Wireless sells a $15 program called Central that does this for Palm Treo devices. Windows Smartphone users should check out the $10 PDAKill software from www.SCPSoft.com . [Editor’s note: After the June PC World went to press, the vendor updated this product and changed its name; go to the link for more information.]

I haven’t yet seen a USB flash memory drive that can wipe itself clean, but Ensconce Data Technology sells external and internal hard drives for laptops and desktops that contain “Dead on Demand” technology. In a pinch, these drives can commit suicide: They contain a small canister filled with a corrosive chemical that can render the platters useless. Software on the computer will trigger release of the chemical if tampering is detected, or the user can press a predetermined set of keys to put their data six feet under.

Destroying your own data is certainly a drastic solution, but for some people the kill-pill option is well worth considering. If hardware carrying precious data is stolen, your privacy, or your company’s bottom line, could depend on it.