Data Deletion

Are you sure you can empty the recycle bin?

While all of us have been bugged by pointers at some point in our lives as a C/C++ programmer, there are professionals out there who handle them for bread and butter. Their job can be described in three geeky words- ‘Forensic Data-Recovery’.

Before you read ahead, as a victim of the notorious WikiLeaks of my miserable attempts at the Math assignment, I urge the reader to think twice before confirming the supposedly permanent deletion of a file from the recycle bin. If you think those formidable bytes of classified information are finally lost to the world, then stop right there and read on. If you are privy to the fact that data persists even after deletion, all the more reason to find out how to get rid of them!

When the CPU is asked to delete a file, only a reference or a pointer to the memory location of the file is deleted and the memory space lives on to be used by another application. But the data occupied by the slot still persists. Special recovery tools available in the market find access to these slots and return with the ‘deleted’ data!

One way around this problem is to repeatedly overwrite these slots, sometimes reaching 40 iterations of overwriting or more and completely obscure the slots.

History is testimony to the fact that the recovery of a seemingly harmless document can topple governments altogether and lead to public humiliation of hitherto respected figures in their respective fields. Take for instance the recent disclosure of the Panama Papers. With documents dating back to the 70s, any living creature who has ever opened an account in the Panamanian ‘tax havens’ (a.k.a – ‘not-for-residents-secret-low- tax’ accounts), has his/her name mentioned as a nasty tax- evader.

With becoming rich comes the burden of remaining rich. The solution to the same has been known to Messi, Amitabh Bacchan and Jackie Chan all this while! It’s simple – create documents for a shell corporation in Panama and declare yourself its director! All you have to do is keep your fingers crossed and make sure that suckers like John Doe (the whistleblower of the Panama papers) are ‘shareholders’ of the firm.

You might wonder what harm it would do to shred the documents and throw them into the dustbin like some of us would do after such a nasty T1. Sadly enough, computer softwares exist to assemble pieces of paper and ‘unshred’ them to expose the contents. You might be in luck if those shredded papers are smaller than 5 millimeters along each edge!

To all those male readers out there, even Incognito Mode might seem like their enemy at this point. But all is not grey! Complete obliteration of data can be achieved in some sense by the physical destruction of the disk. Even this might reveal some data if it’s done like Hillary Clinton who reportedly destroyed 2 of her 13 Blackberrys to hide data regarding the Clinton Foundation, accused to be a mask for monetary scams. Her aides simply used a hammer to break them, which the State Department calls lack of thoroughness- “shoulda used a sledgehammer!”

Destruction doesn’t always mean destroyed.

Amidst the utter failure to delete data completely, we fail to realize that the panacea had always been at our disposal, waiting for its realization. Time! While we revolve around the Sun adding meaning and experiences to our lives, there have been countless individuals before us who have been permanently deleted, dead. The only thing that survives is what they created- the legacy they left behind for their grandchildren to further.

While we bicker over the incomplete deletion and the persistence of data, countless new disks are manufactured and made available to us for our disposal to etch our thoughts, ideas and creations for eternity to appreciate!

So innovate, create, surpass and as they always say- This too shall pass!

– Hitesh Bhagchandani

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