Where Do Deleted Files Go?? Plenty of software tools and professional services allow you to Undelete the files. The Google Ngram Viewer allows you to search words and phrases in 5.2 million books published between 1500 and 2008. According to the Ngram Viewer, in 1979, it was the first year we begin to use the word delete more often than the word erase. It’s a great way to see how the words we use have changed over time.
Biological deletion still wins though. but how does a computer forget? Moving a file to the trash is just the beginning.
To protect against accidental deletion, when thrown in the trash a file remains on your computer in a temporary directory, a sort of purgatory, where it awaits a more ultimate deletion but can be resurrected if you wish.
When you empty the trash you are warned that you cannot undo the action. But when you empty the trash, the physical space inhabited by the file isn’t actually emptied. It’s marked as empty. Available if and when new data needs to be stored somewhere. The file’s home has become available real estate but the file itself hasn’t moved out. Only the pointers have gone away.
Pointers are another type of data on your drive that point to places in memory where the actual file they are referencing can be found. They’re a bit like the table of contents, which means that on most operating systems deleting a file and emptying the trash is like deleting a chapter from a book by turning to the table of contents and marking the chapter as empty.
To a computer reading the table of contents it looks like the space is empty but of course, that doesn’t change the fact that the contents of the chapter are still there.Special data recovery tools look through memory marked empty available to see what’s actually there.
If you’re lucky, they can even find a file and save it, bring it back mark it not available, undeleted. But if some of the file has already been overwritten, there can be problems.The file can be corrupted, melded together with other data like some kind of digital monster.
A blessing in disguise
A couple of years ago a laptop that belonged to photographer Melanie Willhide was stolen. Having your laptop and photographs stolen usually isn’t a good thing, but for photographer Melanie Willhide, it actually helped her career move forward. It contained many of her recent digital photos. Luckily, the police were able to return the laptop to her. They found it in a car they pulled over, but the thief had wiped the laptop’s hard drive clean and had been using it for his own purposes. Data recovery experts were able to find some of her files, still there, on the now-empty space, but the files had been slightly overwritten by things the thief had done.
They’d been corrupted but in a really cool way. So cool Willhide decided to exhibit the work. She titled the show after the thief who made it possible, “To Adrian Rodriguez, with love.” If you want to delete the file so completely it can’t even be recovered in a cool, weird way, like Willhide’s photos, you will need to overwrite the unwanted file completely.
One overwrite should be fine but some people do as many as 20. Even 20 overwrites might not be enough. Sure, the overridden data is hidden, but what about bad sectors? These are parts of a drive that devices can’t access because of failed transistors or physical damage. An overwrite won’t be able to reach them, meaning any data that was ever put there stays there.
The US, Europe, Japan often send such electronics waste to dumps in Ghana, like this one. This city in Ghana is known as Earth’s digital dumping ground. Why Ghana? Well, it is cheaper to send unsalvageable electronics to Africa, marked as a donation, than it is to properly recycle them. But there, in these electronic dumps, they can still bring the files back to life. Organized criminals operating in Ghana have successfully recovered data from unregulated e-dumps.
They’ve been able to find confidential multi-million-dollar agreements, involving the Defense Intelligence Agency and Homeland Security. Shredding paper to get rid of whatever used to be on the paper isn’t even safe either.It’s not easy and it doesn’t always work. But by scanning shreds of paper computer software can match the pieces together. But in the past, shredded documents have been unshared by hand.
In 1979 Iranian students seized the US Embassy in Tehran, With the help of local carpet weavers and years of hard work, they reassembled thousands of pages of confidential documents shred by the CIA. The smaller the shredded particles are and the more of them there are, the more difficult the task.
The ultimate shredder…
If you really want to delete something, destroy it, erase it, time is on your side. In about 5.4 billion years the Sun will become the ultimate shredder. A red giant large enough to swallow Earth whole. Everything will be fine for billions of years. But many accepted models of the universe predict that in the next 100 years whatever intelligence is left will witness the universe’s dark era and its final Heat Death, the end of the universe, the end of any file or photo or memory of you ever being accessed again.
Every time something happens a little bit of energy is lost. For instance, friction through sound or heat. That energy goes out into the universe a little bit at a time, slowly more and more. Eventually, in a closed system, energy becomes homogeneous, evenly distributed, the same everywhere. There’s no gradient maximum entropy.
A gradient, a difference in energy from one place to another is necessary for things to happen, for files to be created and read, for life to exist. And in 1000 years there may not be any usable energy left.
In Isaac Asimov’s short story “The Last Question“, As the story leapfrogs billions of years into the future, Humans list of solutions doesn’t get any longer than none. So, if we think across a grand timescale is cosmic deletion the freezing of everything, heat death, all we have to look forward to in this universe? We went to the Moon. We brought flags with us that we planted on the moon, representing a place on earth. But those flags on the Moon are likely erased now, their symbols and colors bleached by the intense radiation of the Sun on the lunar surface, unfiltered by any atmosphere.
Disclaimer: The purpose of this post is to provide general education on Information Governance topics. The statements are informational only and do not constitute legal advice. If you have specific questions regarding the application of the law to your business activities, you should seek the advice of your legal counsel.