January 17, 2008

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Delete everything
Get rid of files for good
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

When I recently spent an inadvisable amount of money on a fancy new camera phone, I expected a learning curve.

The thing has Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, TV out, even a frickin’ optical zoom lens. That’s a lot of stuff crammed into a small package.

What I didn’t expect was that a third of the memory card that came with it would be mysteriously missing.

Now, you’ll never have the full advertised capacity of a memory card (or hard drive) available once you format it for use. You lose a bit of theoretical capacity to file system overhead and such, so this 128MB memory card had been formatted to about 120MB of usable capacity. Thing is, even when I deleted everything I could, it still showed another 40MB as being in use.

I didn’t buy this thing new. No, it came from some dude in California through an online auction. Could it be that he’d messed this card up somehow? All it took was a USB cable and a little snooping around to discover the truth. By looking at the memory card through my computer rather than relying on the phone’s interface, I found a hidden folder on the card called “.Trashes.” In there were a bunch of space-hogging files, including photos going back nearly a year. Fortunately there was nothing X-rated, only cringe-inducing — just a bunch of pictures of a wiry white dog and a “Crazy Frog” ringtone.

Why all these files were in a hidden folder and not, say, deleted, I can only chalk up to a quirky phone operating system that the previous owner never updated to get the bugs out. The problem isn’t unique to cell phones, though; I bought a couple used hard drives a few years ago that came complete with Windows 95 and some ancient Star Wars games installed on them, along with some spreadsheets that appeared to be of a personal finance nature. A less scrupulous person might have, shall we say, performed some mischief.

When you pass on your devices, whether by sale, re-gifting, donation or other means, it’s a good idea to make sure your data is truly gone. Many companies disposing of hardware go so far as to physically destroy hard drives with drills and crushers. You needn’t break out the power tools to safeguard your private information.

• Format: Most cameras, PDAs and phones have a simple option to format memory cards, clearing all data off them and providing a clean slate to the next user. You can do the same thing to hard drives with the DOS “format” command, but you must be very careful not to wipe the primary drive if you plan to use the computer afterwards unless you’re planning on re-installing the operating system. In most cases, that means typing “format c:” is dangerous. If you’re erasing an external hard drive or a different internal drive, just replace “c:” with the appropriate drive letter.

• Drive erase programs: Free programs abound for thoroughly destroying data on your drive. In most cases, they overwrite the drive’s contents several times, making it very difficult for even determined hackers to glean anything useful.

• Factory restore: If you’re selling your whole PC and want the buyer to have a usable operating system, a full format is, well, kind of rude. But just deleting select files will still leave plenty of junk on there. Most major brands come with a restore disc or program that will re-image the hard drive as if it were brand new. Many PDAs have that feature as well.

Above all, don’t ever think that just because you put something in the Recycle Bin or the Trash, it’s gone. It ain’t.