Aug
19
2010

How the “deleted files aren’t actually deleted” computer quirk can actually be beneficial: File Recovery

Remember that post I made about three weeks ago about why deleting a file on a computer doesn’t actually delete it? In it I made quite a big deal as to how the fact that files kept without you knowing can be a huge privacy and security risk, especially if they are of a sensitive nature. However, there’s another side to the story as well. Files that haven’t been permanently deleted can actually be a GOOD thing. Confused? Well, let me explain.

Stop me if you’re familiar with this scenario. Your friend/work associate/person you know needs a favour from you and asks you to create a document for them. You, being a particularly helpful person, get the task done quickly and send him a copy. He says “thanks” and walks away with a copy of the work you just gave him. Satisfied that you won’t need your copy any more, you delete the file. Then later you decide to empty your Recycle Bin, and the file completely disappears from your computer. Suddenly, your friend/work associate/person you know contacts you to tell you he’s lost his copy and needs another, but you don’t have the original work any more because you deleted it!

If you’ve ever had such a scenario, you probably know just what a nightmare it can be. And you’ve probably wished you could undo your foolishness and “un-delete” the file you just deleted. Well, I’m pleased to say you can stop freaking out and start relaxing, because you can! Remember what I said about how “deleted” files may still be on your drive for a while after deleting? If not, here’s a quote:

when you “delete” a file, it isn’t gone from the Hard Drive, because the Hard Drive can’t remove it. Instead, the computer removes any information about the file from the MFT, basically leading the computer to “forget” it existed, and where it is. The location of the file is marked as free space, so anything can use the space the file took up whenever the need arises. But the file is still there, on the Hard Drive; and until something writes over it, it will stay there for as long as the drive still works.

This means that if a file hasn’t yet been overwritten, it may be possible to recover it. All you need to do is “remind” the computer where the file is, by adding its entry back into the Master File Table. However, because the MFT is a complicated and dangerous thing to mess with, and is usually protected from being written to by non-OS files, you can’t do this on your own.

Luckily though, for many years now there has been a wide variety of specialist “File Recovery” tools on the market to help you do just that. The exact methods they use to do it differ, but generally, these programs first scan your computer to discover files that the MFT does not know about any more. It then tells you what these files are so you can try and find the one you want back. As well as this, many tools run integrity checks on the files to tell you if any part of the file has been overwritten, and how likely it is that the recovery will work fully. You then just choose the file to recover and (usually) where to save the recovered file; and the Recovery tool adds the entry back to the MFT to remind the computer that the file exists and tell it where it can be found now. Some Recovery Tools add in extra features or have a slightly different way of working, but generally you’ll find this to be an accurate explanation.

In the future, I will try to find the best of these software and create articles telling what these products are, where to find them and how well they work. Until then, search around, ask questions and hopefully you’ll find something that works for you. Just like File Perma-Erasing, File Recovery is a vast and lucrative market and there are literally thousands of products – free and paid – that can offer you the lifeline you need for those important files you probably shouldn’t have deleted in the first place. You can sleep soundly now 😉

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