You've been storing some files on your office laptop that probably should have stayed on your home computer. You transfer them onto a CD and quickly send the original files to the Recycle Bin. As your cursor hovers over the Empty Recycle Bin menu, you notice a popup message that says "Permanently removes all items in the Recycle Bin and frees up disk space".

Permanently removes? Not quite.

The incriminating files are still there, right on your hard drive, just waiting for your office IT person or a police computer forensics technician to come in with an inexpensive hard drive recovery software product and find deleted emails, movies, photos, documents, credit card and bank accounts, and other information that you thought was gone for good.

Here's what happens when you "permanently delete" something. Your computer designates that space for reuse at a later date. The information that you deleted is still there, invisible to you and waiting to be rewritten, but there's no way of telling when that may occur. The deleted file is no longer viewable to you because its index listing on your computer's Master File Table has been erased. The contents of the file, however, are still there, completely intact and viewable by anyone who knows how to access them. This remains true even if you partition, reformat and defrag your hard drive. None of those techniques will erase or wipe clean your deleted files. Only one thing does that.

Old data is destroyed when it is re-written with artificial, randomly derived data of ones and zeros. The Department of Defense has issued standards for the cleaning and sanitizing of sensitive information (5220.22- M) and there are a growing number of software products that meet those standards. White Canyon software ( and Lsoft Technologies ( are two examples. Other products along with their reviews can be found by doing a search at

If you're getting a new computer and plan on donating or selling your old one, the use of a hard drive-sanitizing product is essential to protect yourself against information thieves. In 2003, two MIT students purchased 158 used hard drives on eBay--only 12 were properly cleaned. From the remainder, these students were able to retrieve an amazing amount of private information including thousands of credit card numbers. With the availability of security software products on the market today, there's simply no reason to remain vulnerable to this kind of attack, nor do you need to retain any nagging doubts about that personal information that you "permanently deleted" from your office computer.

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Posted 04-18-2005 2:47 PM by Doug Casey