Rows of colorful data.

Can you delete data? The answer isn’t so simple.

Remember that moment and the awful feeling in the pit of your stomach when the file you’ve been working on for days or weeks suddenly disappears? Did you actually delete it, or is it still accessible?

Digital data is almost impossible to delete completely, especially by accident. That means those lost files are probably recoverable, but it may not be cost effective to get them back. It all depends on how the data was lost and the deletion method.

Does throwing files into the recycle bin totally delete data?

That nifty recycle bin icon is a great way to clear more space on your hard drive, but it isn’t a magic eraser. If you accidentally throw something in the recycle bin that you later need to recover, it might still be available without a call to tech support. Unless you have actually emptied the recycle bin, it stores the information for a period of time. That gives you plenty of opportunity to have second thoughts and recover any files deleted in error.

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What if the recycle bin is emptied?

If you’ve already clicked to empty the bin, that still doesn’t mean your data is lost forever. It simply means that the computer has deleted the tags on that stored data that make it findable. It has also allocated the storage resources formerly devoted to those files as available.

Until new information is stored on top of that raw data, you can get it back. There are some great tools out there that will pull up the raw data on your hard drive so you can go digging for a lost file.

Is it really deleted or just misplaced?

If you didn’t right click on an icon and select delete or physically drag a file to the recycle bin, it wasn’t deleted. It may not be where you expect to find it, but it definitely wasn’t deleted. That means it is still lurking on your hard drive somewhere, and you just need to find it.

With easy to remember naming conventions, running a search on your hard drive can turn up just about any missing file. You might have to wait for a while as the search completes, but a 10-minute wait is a lot better than starting from scratch.

Why is the file empty or missing new work?

Sometimes, your file wasn’t deleted, but it may not have been saved. This is actually much more difficult to fix. If you don’t have automatic saving enabled or backup systems that preserve active files, you might be out of luck.

Thankfully, the majority of business efficiency software comes with autosave functions. Before panicking, start by opening the software and looking at the recent documents. It might be saved in a temporary file at the top of the list. Sure, you might have lost an hour of work but not the weeks of effort that you put in.

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Deleting data permanently is hard.

Digital storage writes information to physical discs. That means that your computer keeps a record of where it puts everything, then uses the index to pull information from specific locations.

Deleting location information doesn’t delete the stored files. Even once that location is available for reuse, it might be possible to recover data from re-written drives. Scrambling that data beyond recall usually requires deliberate effort and the application of fairly sophisticated software.

However, when you do delete a file and it isn’t easily recoverable, the real issue is the value equation. Is it worth hiring a data recovery specialist for that specific file, or would it be less expensive to recreate the information? In most cases, recreation is the less expensive option. Of course, this all applies to HDD storage. For SSD storage, deletion isn’t really an option, so go for top quality encryption.

Want to keep reading? Take a look at what happens to your data after you die.