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Can Data Be Recovered From an Erased Hard Disk Drive?
With every incident of sensitive personal data being found on computer hard drives, whether it’s famous bank records or government records, the debate about hard drive wiping heats up.
Removing data from computer systems is an area where horror stories often appear. Statements such as “you can’t remove all the data from a hard drive” have been made by prominent figures in the world of data recovery and computer forensics.
Is it true that you cannot wipe data from a hard drive? Can forensic experts and government goons get the data back, no matter what data erasure technique was used?
What is disk wiping?
True data erasure is where a dedicated degaussing mechanism is used to turn all parts into a magnetic material so that no trace of data remains. Data erasure software doesn’t actually erase, it replaces data with other data, thereby removing information you no longer want to keep.
Why delete data?
Deleting a file from a hard drive, in most cases, does nothing to the data, it just removes an entry that tells the operating system where the data is, and in some cases it leaves all the information about the storage of data in place and only records that the file has been deleted.
The data itself is still present until the space it occupied is reused.
In addition, data from files is often stored in transient memory. Most operating systems use caches, areas where accessed data is temporarily stored, and the Windows swap file is a good example of this.
Data erasure software is designed to perform an orderly and complete replacement of stored information.
Is degaussing the best approach?
Degaussing involves placing a hard drive in a moving magnetic field that is strong enough to rearrange the molecules and erase any data.
At first glance this seems like the method that gives the greatest assurance that the data is gone.
There are two issues to consider
First, degaussing removes not only your data, but also the information that was written to the drive during production when the drive was formatted. You cannot recreate this information and so the drive will no longer work and thus cannot be reused.
Second, given that the drive will no longer work, you have no means of checking that the data has been completely erased. If the degaussing equipment did not meet the specifications for the job, the operating procedures were not followed correctly, then perhaps not everything was erased. Even worse, maybe the process didn’t work at all and the drive was actually damaged during removal from the computer or at some other point before the degaussing process.
It is possible that all or some of the data remains and that a data recovery process can retrieve it.
Is disk wiping software the answer?
A hard drive stored data in sections called sectors, usually 512 bytes each. All of these are accessible for reading and writing via the hard disk interface (IDE, SATA, SCSI). Therefore, it is possible to replace data in any sector and thus remove all data.
Well, not quite. To avoid problems caused by sectors becoming unusable during normal operation, a hard drive maintains a set of spare sectors. Your 160GB drive is actually 160GB plus some extra backup that you can’t access. If during the attempt to write to the disk there is a failure, the hard disk can be reallocated by using one of its spare sectors and decommissioning the failed one. This redistribution is recorded in a table known as the G List, or List of Raised Defects.
It is theoretically possible for a sector to which data could not be written to still be read, although a deep knowledge of disk electronics and data recovery techniques would be required. How likely this is to happen and, if it did, whether any recovered sectors would actually contain anything of value, is difficult to judge. I consider the possibility to be very small.
A more common problem, in my experience, is that the data deletion process is not monitored.
If you do a cursory inspection of a drive where the first thousand sectors are overwritten with random gibberish and one where every sector is overwritten, you’ll find very little difference. Try to turn on the computer and you will get some kind of error message that the operating system is not found.
A disk eraser who is either careless or has other priorities may determine that he can quickly erase the beginning of some of the disks in the array to save some time and no one will notice. I have seen many examples of this when performing validation tests on erased drives.
You may have drives that appear to be erased but are not.
Is this a problem with using data wipe software? Not really, it’s a problem with process and attention to detail. If the processes are monitored and logged correctly then there should be no problem. Don’t rely on technology at the expense of sound procedures.
Can data be recovered from a deleted hard drive?
Look on the forums and you’ll probably find some comments about the Government possibly getting that data back, but the reality is that there are no bad guys or evil geniuses that can defy the laws of physics. Stories about using electron microscopes to find infinitesimal differences between bits of data and thus determine what has been recorded before are mere fiction, not even science fiction.
I was once asked how many layers of recording we could do again. There are no layers, just one record, and when it changes, then it’s still just one record.
With older drives there was a method that could be used to try to access older data, but this was based on mechanisms that were slightly imprecise and so some data was not completely overwritten. Even if something could be discovered, the chances of ever turning it into something useful were about zero, and with modern high-density equipment the chances are zero.
So, how should data deletion be performed?
First, making sure you have a process that can be easily followed and properly monitored.
Second, using reputable software to perform the deletion.
Third, if sensitivity is a major issue, doing some third-party testing of the process to validate it.
Forget science fiction, put process first.
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