3D illustration open trash button yellow files deleted data

Is deleted data ever completed erased?

Our work and personal lives are increasingly digital. We work in spreadsheets and answer emails and deal with hundreds of conversations a day. To keep our lives (and our machines) running well, we need to have good digital hygiene. Part of that means keeping data organized, but it also means cleaning up and deleting old files.

Being a business leader means that you have to consider how to keep your company’s data secure from loss and data breaches. It also means you’re responsible for keeping data secure from fraud and inappropriate uses by making certain that files don’t get into the wrong hands.

Keeping data safe doesn’t end when you hit “delete”. It’s vital to know what happens and how to truly wipe data to keep your business and your clients safe.

Consider files from start to end

Sensitive data, whether it’s yours or your clients needs to be cared for from creation to deletion. Certain industries have data retention regulations and others require that certain data only exist in highly protected areas and states.

Cloud services make collaboration and sharing files easier than ever, can make it more difficult to ensure total data deletion since files are stored in multiple places. Deleting sensitive data is a lot easier when it is located in only one place.

For help deleting data that is backed up locally or in the cloud, consult with your managed service provider to handle secure deletion.

What happens when you delete a file?

When you click delete or drag a file to the recycle bin, what exactly happens? Well first, it doesn’t immediately remove the file. Even if you empty the recycle bin. Even if you restart your computer. What the standard delete action does is tell your computer that the memory where that file is saved is available for new data to be written there. And until that space has been written over, there are still ways deleted data can be recovered.

This memory allocation versus true deletion can be a good thing if you accidentally delete a file and need it restored. However, it can also mean that criminals or other bad elements could find ways to access those files.

It’s important to note that the information above refers to standard hard drives. This process is a little different for solid state drives, such as flash drives, which do immediately erase the data. This kind of memory is the sort that your smartphone uses.

How to safely and finally delete a file

A better question is, what do you need to happen to a deleted file? Is it innocuous or does it hold proprietary data? If it’s just a meeting invite or a birthday note, then the typical system delete is fine.

Before you begin the process of totally deleting a file, consider the following questions:

  • Will I need this file again from this location? You may need to keep a record of this file, but not on this machine.
  • Am I legally or financially required to maintain this file? Some industries require maintaining certain data for set lengths of time.
  • Is this data that could harm my business or my clients? Private data or financial data requires trustworthy custodianship.

To erase an entire hard drive, you need to wipe it. Just deleting the data clears memory addresses, but a wipe will overwrite the entire hard drive with garbage data and then erase it. However, computer forensics is so advanced that even doing this is not a guarantee.

To make extra sure data is gone, you can perform a wipe multiple times. Best practices for national security data is to perform seven such wipes, but most consumers and businesses will be fine with three wipes. There’s no need to use third-party applications to do this, which can pose their own security concerns. Windows 10 and Mac OS X have built-in tools to handle this process for you.

Your best bet, if you really want to make sure deleted data is gone, is to reach out to the experts for help with cybersecurity, backups, file management, and data deletion.