Is personal data really gone when it's deleted from a device?
Authored by a Symantec employee
Most of us are familiar with deleting data—we do it almost every day. We move folders into the recycling bin, dump 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?
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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 accidently deleted items we did not mean to; in this case the prospect of bringing 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 deleted these 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, hackers, and other online vigilantes 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.
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 cyber criminals 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 Mac and PC. 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 whip the hard drive clean. Otherwise these files are there for the taking, and anyone with recovery software and bad intentions could cause harm.
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