Tech Talk
May 26, 2006
Don’t panic when crucial files are deleted

When technology works, it really works, and when it messes up, it can really turn your life upside down. We can identify with that here at Searchlight.

A couple months ago, a client contracted us to do feature on a special milestone achieved by their business. Our reporter spent almost a whole day at the company interviewing and taking photographs of the staff as well as candid shots at the ceremony held to mark the milestone.{{more}}

On returning to the office, the reporter attempted to download the photographs from the camera on to the server. I am not sure what went wrong, but at the end of the process, the photographs were neither on the company’s server nor on the memory card in her camera. Panic, panic! We had only a couple days to our printing deadline, and the event could not be re-staged.

Just two weeks later, another member of staff who used Outlook Express as her email client decided to compact her email messages. Little did she know that if while compacting files, a new email message is received in the Inbox, that she could lose data. That is exactly what happened. She lost five months of vitally important email messages.

Scenes like this are replayed on a daily basis in businesses and homes around the world. Sometimes the loss of files is not accidental. Persons may deliberately delete files from a computer’s hard drive either to remove evidence of certain activities or as an act of sabotage.

The immediate response on discovery of missing files is usually to pull out one’s hair, but calm down, there is a good chance that the data can be restored.

You see, when a file is deleted, the data is not actually removed from the hard drive or other digital storage medium. It is only the information that tells the operating system where on the hard drive the file is located that is erased. This information is called a pointer. By erasing the pointer, the actual file becomes invisible to the operating system, and that location on the hard drive is considered free space, available for use once more.

Eventually, the hard drive will overwrite your file with new data. It is therefore important to act as soon as possible to try to undelete or restore your missing files. This is especially true if you do not have a lot of free space on your hard drive.

There are several utilities that you can find on the Internet that recover “deleted” files. What many of these utilities do is search for data on the hard drive that does not have corresponding pointer information and present you with a list of these files. Your chances of fully recovering a file diminishes the longer you wait after you the file was deleted, since the probability that the file has been overwritten increases. Sometimes you can recover portions of a file that has not been completely overwritten.

In Searchlight’s case, we were able to restore our files in both cases. We downloaded specialist utility recovery software from the Internet. In one case the software was free, in the other case, we paid US$5. Neither of the utilities we used utilized the “corresponding pointer” recovery methodology. Because we were, in each case, seeking to restore specific types of files, we chose programs that understood and recognized the type of file we wanted to recover, searched the storage medium for this type of file, and produced a list of all files of that type (not just those that were deleted).

So next time you experience data loss, follow these steps: (i) calm down (ii) stop using the affected hard drive/ memory card so that you don’t overwrite the missing file (iii) search the internet for a utility that promises to restore the type of file you lost using another computer. You will find hundreds of tools available. Read the reviews on each one, or speak to an IT professional and ask them to make a recommendation or attempt the recovery for you. Be careful when downloading software from the internet. It may be a virus, worm or some other program written to do harm. (iv) Run the utility on the affected storage medium.

The recovery attempt may take several hours or even days. When we were restoring our photos from the memory card, we had to run the utility overnight. There is no guarantee that you will recover your data, but once the storage medium has not failed physically, there is a fairly good chance that the recovery will be successful.

Experiences like this remind us of the importance of backing up all our data regularly. Although we got our files back, the process was long and stressful, an experience we would rather not repeat.