Is personal data really gone when it is deleted?

Man searching for his personal info online.

Ever wonder what happens when you drag old emails into the trash or delete personal records to free up space on a hard drive? You might be surprised to learn that your data may not really be gone.


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Most of us are familiar with deleting data, we do it almost every day. We drag old emails into the trash and delete personal records to free up space on a computer’s hard drive. But what really happens to all that data? Where does it go, and is it really gone forever?

Some people will be relieved to know that, most of the time, deleted files are not permanently gone. Many of us have at one time or another accidentally deleted items we did not mean to. In this case, the ability to bring those files back from the dead is usually good news.

The bad news is that most people don’t think about these files unless they need to recover them. Moreover, most people don’t realize they’re not actually gone.

What if someone else wanted to get these deleted files? How could they do it? And could you stop them?

What really happens when you delete a file?

When you drag a folder into the trash bin on your desktop, all you’re doing is deleting the file system — the road the operating system takes to retrieve the data. The file still exists on the hard drive and could easily be retrieved with recovery software. So, just because you can’t see a file in the directory after it’s been deleted doesn’t mean that it’s not there. This is a security issue most computer users do not take seriously until it’s too late.

Deleted files are at risk

Cybercriminals and hackers can gain access to personal information stored in your computer even after you think you’ve deleted the files. This includes everything from financial documents to scanned images. If you think those files are gone because they’ve been deleted, think again. Having a security suite like Norton Security will give you all the protection you need to keep your device safe. But what happens to your device after you discard it?

Computer forensics is a common term in today’s news headlines and usually refers to the recovery of illegal files, information, or content from a confiscated computer. However, cybercriminals utilize the same techniques and tool as government agencies and law enforcement to access deleted files.

When is deleting a file okay?

You should feel confident deleting files if they do not contain personal or sensitive information, and would be of no value to anyone else.

Deleting a file would be adequate if you were simply trying to free up space on the hard drive or reduce clutter.

Always ask yourself these three questions before deleting data:

  • Will I ever need this again?
  • Could someone use this information against me?
  • Would I be uncomfortable if a stranger recovered this data?

If the answer is “no” to all three of these questions, then deleting the file is sufficient.

When is deleting a file not enough?

Files containing personal information, business records, and financial reports are not safe if merely deleted. For these documents, you need to take further steps to ensure that the records are irretrievable and that cybercriminals cannot find them on your hard drive.

Ask yourself those same three questions. If the answer is “yes” to all three, you will need to wipe the data from your hard drive.

How to permanently delete data

Formatting a hard drive and wiping it clean are not the same things. Formatted hard drives will still contain retrievable data. If you wish to permanently delete files, you will need to overwrite the data with special software.

There are free versions of eraser software for both Macs and PCs. Always back up anything you do not wish to lose once the hard drive has been wiped clean, after which it will be impossible or very expensive to retrieve any lost data.

You should consider wiping a hard drive to protect your personal information in all of the following cases:

  • Selling a computer
  • Recycling a computer
  • Giving a computer away
  • Donating a computer
  • Cleaning out unnecessary files

Your personal information will always be retrievable on a computer’s hard drive unless you take the necessary steps to wipe the hard drive clean. Otherwise, these files are there for the taking, and anyone with recovery software and bad intentions could access them and invade your privacy.

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Editorial note: Our articles provide educational information for you. Our offerings may not cover or protect against every type of crime, fraud, or threat we write about. Our goal is to increase awareness about Cyber Safety. Please review complete Terms during enrollment or setup. Remember that no one can prevent all identity theft or cybercrime, and that LifeLock does not monitor all transactions at all businesses. The Norton and LifeLock brands are part of Gen Digital Inc. 


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