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Texts and other electronic messages from the U.S. Secret Service became a point of a controversy after the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security told Congress that the records were removed after his office requested them. But could a text or other digital messages be erased from existence?
People delete text messages and other electronic messages for a number of reasons: to clear room on their device; to cut off contact after a sour conversation; and, from time to time, to interrupt the conversation, for one reason or another.
But deleting a digital letter isn’t as easy as you might think. For starters, depending on the program you are using, the recipient will still have a copy of the message you sent them. And that data can survive in cloud storage.
Alfred Demirjian, founder and CEO of TechFusion, has spent the past 35 years in digital forensics and data recovery in Boston. He said that once you hit send, that information is likely to be there forever, especially if the government wants whatever you send.
“My theory-and I think I’m right-is anything digital can be recorded; you text anything, it can be recorded anywhere,” Demirjian said. “If it’s for national security, they’ll open it, if they want, they’ll find it.”
If you delete a piece of data from your device – a photo, video, text or document – it won’t be lost. However, your device marks that space as available to be overwritten with new information.
Digital investigators trained to sniff deleted data use a technique called jailbreaking to retrieve information from computers, iPhones, Android and other devices.
If the memory of that device is filled completely, the new information will be stored on top of the deleted items. Which would be great for those who take lots of innocent photos and videos. Those large files will overwrite old texts, photos and so on.
“If you delete something, it can’t be deleted, it’s basically usable for the system to copy over it,” Demirjian said.
But these days, phones, computers and tablets have bigger and bigger storage. Which means the chances that you’ll fill that device before the house needs to be cleaned, are less likely, which increases the chances of an investigator recovering that data.
Even if an individual raises their memory multiple times, investigators can still retrieve deleted items.
“Even if it is overwritten, it can still be recovered, but not all,” said Demirjian. “It takes a long time and is very expensive, but some things are recoverable.”
If someone is desperate to wipe their device, they can wipe it professionally, according to Demirjian, but it can be costly. Which is probably why some have resorted to drastic measures to destroy digital evidence.
People try to bash their phone with a hammer and throw laptops into the sea, but even so, a skilled digital forensics specialist is likely to recover what they need. Burning a tool into a molten pile of plastic, however, is likely to do the trick.
Demirjian has done work for NASA, IBM, Harvard and MIT, police organizations, the Department of Transportation and more. And even if he considers himself an expert in digital forensics, he says some government agencies have access to data recovery tools even without him.
That’s the case, Demirjian said it’s best to practice “politically correct,” when sending something questionable.
“Don’t write something you’ll regret later when someone tells you,” he said.