How to Really Delete your Files

A lot of people don’t known, but when we delete a file from a computer in fact it isn’t really deleted. The operating system simply remove it from the file list and makes the space the file was using available for new data to be written. In other words, the operating system doesn’t “zero” (i.e., doesn’t clean) the space the file was using.

The operating system acts like that in order to save time. Imagine a large file that occupies lots of sectors on the hard drive. To really delete this file from the disk the operating system would have to fill with zeros (or any other value) all sectors occupied by this file. This could take a lot of time. Instead, it simply removes the file name from the directory where the file is located and mark the sectors the file used as available space.

This means that it is possible to recover a deleted file, since its data wasn’t really removed from the disk. Recovery data software works by looking for sectors with data in them that are not currently used by any file listed.

This leads us to a very important security question: if you have really confidential files, that cannot be read by anyone else, deleting them from the disk simply by hitting the Del key and then removing the recycle bin contents isn’t enough: they can be recovered by an advanced data recovery tool.

There is a program called Eraser that solves this problem. Deleting your files using this program it really “zeroes” all sectors that the file was using.

With disk formatting it isn’t different. When we format a hard drive, the data that was there aren’t deleted, making it possible to recover data with an advanced data recovery tool even after formating your hard drive. A lot of people that have a hard disk full of confidential data think that by formatting the hard drive they are killing any chance of data recovery. This is far from being true.

When you format a disk, the operating system only “zeros” the root directory and the tables containing the list of sectors on disk that are occupied by files (this table is called FAT). Pay attention when you format a hard drive, a message “Verifying x%” is shown. The hard drive isn’t being formated; the format command is only testing the hard disk magnetical surface in order to see if there is any error and, in case if a error is found, mark the defective area as bad (the famouse “bad blocks” or “bad sectors”).

So, in the same way it happens when we delete files, the hard drive isn’t really “zeroed” when we format it. In order to really “zero” your hard drive, use utilities such as Zero Fill. This utility fills all sectors from your hard drive with zeros, making it impossible to recover any data after this utility is run, what doesn’t happen when you use the normal format procedure. You can also use the so-called “low-level format utilities”. These programs fill all sectors with zeros as well. You must download the software according to your hard drive manufacturer. For instance, Seagate calls its software DiscWizard, while Western Digital calls its software Data LifeGuard Diagnostics.

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Author: Gabriel Torres

Gabriel Torres is a Brazilian best-selling ICT expert, with 24 books published. He started his online career in 1996, when he launched Clube do Hardware, which is one of the oldest and largest websites about technology in Brazil. He created Hardware Secrets in 1999 to expand his knowledge outside his home country.

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