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How To Be Squeaky Clean?

You need to do more than delete files or format your hard disk to keep your private data private. Why is that? The files you trashed from your computer may seem to have disappeared, when, in fact, they are still residing on your hard disk. Undetected, that is, until a snoop traces the lingering data - say, a bank account number or insurance policy details - and uses it for less than altruistic reasons.

Last year, a research team from Glamorgan University in the United Kingdom bought 111 supposedly clean hard disks, and found that more than half still contained sensitive information. These ranged from insurance data and evidence of extra-marital affairs to detailed school records of students. The team used no specialised tools - just free software obtained from the Web. Fortunately, tools for secure deletion of data are available to everyone.

Instead of just emptying your Windows' Recycle Bin or your Mac's Trash, use secure deletion tools. It is a good idea to do regular housekeeping, but especially before you sell or give away your hard disk. Free and must-buy software for secure file deletions abound. One opensource software was Eraser. Download it for free from www.heidi.ie/eraser/

Recovery Plan

It has happened to the most meticulous among us. One click on the wrong button and, instead of saving a file, we end up deleting it. Fortunately, the file will usually still be in the Recycle Bin and a simple right-click on "Restore" will put it back to where it belongs. However, the headache starts when you unwittingly empty the Recycle Bin as well.

But before you get into a tizzy, all is not lost. There are various tools available to help you retrieve deleted files. While a deleted file may appear to have been erased when you empty the Recycle Bin, its physical bytes are, in fact, still dormant somewhere on your disk. What Windows has done is merely flag the file's directory entry (imagine a huge table of contents that tells Windows where each file physically resides on the disk) to say that the space occupied by the file is now available for use.

So the next time Windows needs space for another file, the flagged space may be overwritten. So as long as the flagged space has been left intact, you have a good chance of recovering the deleted file. Therein lies the catch: You should not write anything on the disk from which you want to recover- deleted files. Even something as innocuous as Internet surfing or editing a document constitutes disk activity, which may hamper file recovery.

Do not install the recovery software onto the same disk. You can get around this by connecting the disk to another computer which already has recovery software installed, or use recovery software that does not need installation for example, software that can run from removable media such as floppies or USB drives. Similarly, you should also save the recovered data onto a separate drive from the one you are trying to recover data from. The steps would vary with the software you use.

Tools You Can Try

Do a search for "undelete" in Google and you can find numerous links to file recovery software. As expected, most of them cost money and while there are demo or trial downloads available, these are usually limited in functionality. For example, you can only use the demos to undelete files smaller than 64 kilobytes, which may work for a small Word document, but not a large image file. I found a free tool at http://www.pcinspector.de/ called PC Inspector File Recovery and put it through its paces. It worked surprisingly well for a free tool.

I copied a folder containing a variety of subfolders and files from music, photos, videos to web pages and office documents from my main hard disk to a second hard disk in my computer. Then I deleted all the copied data and emptied the Recycle Bin. PC Inspector File Recovery did not have any problems finding the deleted files and recovering them - it took me only about three minutes. My test involved 142 files in nine folders totalling 182 megabytes.

How about accidental deletion of photos and videos from your memory cards? The same program had no problems recovering the ones I deleted in my tests using both the camera and computer. Another software worth trying is eDATA Unerase. It has a three-step interface for recovering deleted files from music, images and videos to Microsoft Office documents. It comes in both a freeware personal edition and a more powerful professional edition.

You can download it from http://www.octanesoft.com/download.html Other programs include: ActiveUndelete (www.active-undelete.com); and Diskeeper Undelete (www.diskeeper.com/undelete/undelete.asp).

 

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