I recently purchased a used iPad on eBay to setup for one of my parents. When I received the device I was shocked to find it completely intact from the owner. In other words, the device had all of the user’s email, text messages, and music still on the device. On top of that their cellular service was still active! Being the honest guy I am, I immediately wiped out the iPad and destroyed the SIM card. I emailed the owner to let him/her know about the state of the device and that I had wiped it clean for them. Could you imagine what a field day an unscrupulous buyer could have had with that user’s data? Scary stuff.
This leads me to my topic for today – the Ghost in your Machine. Data is a funny thing and it’s harder to get rid of than hovering your mouse over the file and clicking delete. Just because the data does not show up in your directory, application list, recycle bin, or start menu doesn’t mean it isn’t there anymore. Computer hard drives are the biggest offender when it comes to deleted files that are not deleted. If you are not purposeful, using specialized software in your efforts to delete things on your drive there is a chance that things can be recovered. You hear all the time about how criminals (and politicians – if there is a distinction…) have their computers seized and analyzed, and agents are able to “recover” items that were are as evidence. The same can be done to your hard drive and things like your browsing history, password files, and other sensitive documents can be recovered that you thought had been deleted into cyberspace.
So now you might be asking “then what happens when I delete a file? What’s the point of deleting a file if it doesn’t go away?” Put simply it’s about resource allocation on your computer. The operating system manages the resources your computer uses and one of those resources is the hard drive. It keeps track of where everything is and how much space for data storage is available. When you tell the operating system to go and delete a file, it essentially notes that you no longer need the data and the space it resides on within the hard drive is now available for other uses. It does not go and actually remove the data. Until that space is used again by other data, the original data remains there but invisible to the operating system, like a ghost of sorts. Even partial amounts of this ghost data can be recovered if no other data has been written over it.
There is software available that will actually go and look for this ghost data and recover it. On the flip side, there is software that will look for this data and overwrite it so that it cannot be recovered. For these reasons it is important that before you sell or dispose of any computer that contains a hard drive that you take the extra step to have it “cleaned” by a professional. I offer this service to my friends and family and most local PC shops will also do it for you.
If you are somewhat tech savvy and feel you can tackle this process on your own a quick Google search will give you some options. If you live in the Dallas Fort Worth area I can do this service for you for a small fee. All laptops donated to my charity Moonlight go through a thorough hard drive cleaning process before they go to their designated families.
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