Why is data recovery so complex? With all of the advances in technology, our clients sometimes assume that data recovery should be easier and less expensive than ever. While we at resquoo do benefit from the use of state-of-the-art equipment, techniques, tools, and software, that doesn’t mean our job is simpler than it used to be. Advances in technology have actually made data recovery more complex and difficult in many important ways. This article will explore them in an in-depth, easy-to-understand way.
Let’s start by defining data recovery.
Data recovery is the process of trying to extract data or information from a damaged or otherwise inaccessible device or storage medium. Whether it’s opening up a hard drive to physically repair it or running software tools to handle a logical failure, data recovery can take many forms, but the goal is always to retrieve information.
As long as humans have stored data on fallible machines, we have needed some means of getting it back in the face of accidents or errors.
And now, a brief history of computers and data recovery.
Did you know that computers date back to antiquity? While this definition in part depends on what you call a “computer”—we’re not counting bones with tally marks on them as computers—the fact is that calculation machines are much older than you might expect.
Ancient computers didn’t store data in modern ways, so data recovery as we know it wasn’t necessary.
The first computers were analog devices, meaning they used physical mechanisms, such as clockworks and gears, rather than the digital 1s and 0s we’re familiar with today. The earliest computers date back to before the common era. In the first millennium B.C., the Chinese “south-pointing chariot” used gears to enable a pointer mounted on it to consistently point south regardless of the turning of the chariot it was on.
However, the title of first computer often goes to the Antikythera mechanism, a device dating back to ancient Greece, circa 200 B.C., that could track and predict the location of the planets, solar and lunar eclipses, and count down toward the next Olympic games. It may have also been used for forms of navigation and mapping unknown to us today. These clockwork devices didn’t store data the way computers do today, so data recovery was unnecessary.
The developers of the earliest programmable analogue computer, the English polymath Charles Babbage and English mathematician and writer Ada Lovelace, were also the first to attempt data recovery. Babbage invented the Analytical Engine, a machine that could be programmed, in 1833. He spent 11 years working on the plans for the computer, then presented his discoveries in 1841 at an Italian seminar. An Italian named Luigi F. Menabrea wrote about the invention, and a summary of this seminar was soon published across France.
The poet Lord Byron’s daughter, mathematician and writer Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace, read an article on the Analytical Engine and, in 1843, presented notes to Babbage that were three times as long as the original article. They worked together to complete the Analytical Engine, usually considered the first modern computer. Because she wrote the first algorithm for a computer, Ada Lovelace is considered the first computer programmer. The programs that ran on this engine were punched into Jacquard cards made of stiff paper. When one of these “punch cards” was damaged during use, Babbage and Lovelace tried to fix it, thus becoming the first people to attempt data recovery. Unfortunately, they failed.
The Analytical Engine didn’t have as many uses as modern computers. One of the earliest multipurpose computers was the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer (ENIAC), which dates back to 1946. It was initially used to create artillery firing tables for military uses; its earliest programs included a feasibility study on the thermonuclear weapon. The early ENIAC programmers were all women who did not receive significant recognition for their work for more than fifty years.
ENIAC’s “internal memory” was made up of 20 ten-digit accumulators and 6,000 cables and switches on function tables, “constant transmitters” and accumulators.
“ENIAC utilized ten-position (0,1,2…) ring counters to store digits, with each ring counter requiring 36 diode vacuum tubes to function – the intended function was to replicate the way mechanical ‘spinning-wheel’ computational machines worked, with digits ‘ticking up’ and rolling over to the next when they hit their max,” writes Marcus Plutowski of FIRST organization’s Team Valkyrie. “On top of this, they had twenty ten-digit ‘accumulators,’ devices composed of the above ‘ring counters’ that could run 5000 addition or subtraction operations between themselves and some other memory bank every second.”
External memory first came in the form of punch cards and was therefore both unlimited and prone to data loss caused by damage to the stiff paper.
The first computer to use magnetic tape to record data was the Eckert-Mauchly UNIVersal Automatic Computer I (UNIVAC I). A tape drive used motors to wind tape from one reel to the other, passing over electromagnetic heads to write, read, or erase data as it moved. This fragile tape often broke or could not be read properly. Data was difficult to retrieve in these situations.
IBM began using a vacuum column to hold tape down during movement in 1952, resulting in a decrease in tape breakage. This innovation also made data easier to recover when issues arose.
The first computer to use a hard disk drive was the Random Access Method of Accounting And Control (RAMAC), which was announced to the public on September 14, 1956.
IBM had recognized applications for what it called a “Random Access File” with high capacity and fast random access at a comparatively low cost as early as 1953. This is as opposed to sequential access, which was how magnetic tape stored data—in other words, using a predetermined, ordered sequence. IBM’s engineers considered wire matrices, drums, drum arrays, rod arrays, and other ways to implement this random access storage before finally settling on rotating magnetic platters.
RAMAC was the first commercially available computer to use a moving-head hard drive as a form of secondary data storage. A conventional hard drive is similar to an old-fashioned record player. Instead of a record, it has platters, which store data magnetically. Instead of a needle, it has heads that magnetically read data from and write data to the platters. Secondary storage is memory that isn’t lost when the computer is powered off and that the CPU can’t directly access because it’s an external device.
By the time RAMAC was announced to the public in 1956, it had already been installed at the United States Navy and a few corporations. RAMAC’s storage system was named the IBM 350. RAMAC took up an entire room; just its hard drive storage filled a system approximately the size of two refrigerators. Fifty 24-inch platters were stacked inside.
This system was leased to clients, who received less than five megabytes of storage for $3,200 per month. Adjusted for inflation, that would be $29,600 per month in 2018. IBM’s marketing team didn’t know how to convince clients they would need more storage than five megabytes, so they didn’t want to increase RAMAC’s storage capacity.
The hard drive was patented on March 24, 1970. While this paved the way for the data recovery industry as it exists today, it wasn’t until the rise of the personal computer that data recovery specialists emerged.
Personal computers began to enter businesses and homes in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the first data recovery companies emerged alongside them.
In 1977, Ken Olsen, the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, said “There is no reason why anyone would want a computer in their home.” Digital Equipment Corporation was acquired by Compaq more than two decades ago, and Compaq has since been acquired by Hewlett-Packard, but at the time that Olsen said these ill-fated words, the company was an important vendor of computer equipment. When he made this statement, pre-made personal computers like the MITS Altair had been on the market for a few years. In 1977, Apple Computer released the Apple II, the first mass market personal computer, and by 1981, the IBM PC had been released, starting the march of personal computers into homes and businesses.
At this time, floppy disks and hard drives started to become widely used. Instead of a hard drive’s platters, a floppy drive has a diskette where data is stored magnetically. Like a hard drive, a diskette has heads that magnetically read and write data.
Hard drives and floppy disks were small and simple enough that consumers felt comfortable using them, but like the technologies that came before them, they were prone to data loss. During the early 1980s, data recovery companies began appearing to assist clients with this issue. Our partner lab, DriveSavers, was established in 1985, making it an early pioneer in the data recovery industry.
Computers continued moving into households in the 1990s, and households began gaining internet access.
The 90s saw an increase in the amount of storage space used by the typical computer user, in part owing to the greater amount of software available and ease of downloading data from the internet. By mid-1997, 36.6 percent of households had a computer, and 18.6 percent had internet access. Businesses were faster adopters of both computers and the internet.
During this period, more data recovery companies arose to fill the greater need for data recovery services.
In the 2000s, most households and businesses gained internet access, and digital cameras became popular.
By mid-2001, 56.2 percent of households had at least one computer, and 50.3 percent of households had internet access. Most businesses had at least one computer and internet access as well. The ubiquity of the internet meant more people were downloading files, creating and collecting more data which could potentially be lost by the user as a result of an accident or error.
In 2004, sales of digital cameras surpassed sales of film cameras. This meant that more people were storing their family photos on their home computers or external storage devices, and with a typical photo being several megabytes in size, this created a greater need for storage. (A megabyte is 1,024 kilobytes, while a gigabyte is 1,024 megabytes.) Many digital cameras can also shoot video; videos can be several gigabytes in size. As consumer home movies switched from VHS to digital, storage needs continued to increase.
This led to a need for larger and larger hard drives, that were consumer-grade and prone to failure. Data recovery services became a necessity in the consumer space.
Today, further changes are taking place that are changing the data recovery landscape.
Devices are storing increasingly more data, but that’s not the only change impacting the data recovery business. Today, the move from conventional hard drives to solid state drives (SSDs), a decrease in the durability of hard drives in the consumer market, the ubiquity of portable devices, an increase in data encryption, a proliferation of proprietary components, the shrinking of devices, and the increasing threat of malware all pose challenges to the field of data recovery.
We will now explore each of these issues in depth.
1. Devices contain increasingly more data.
Today, we regularly see conventional hard drives and SSDs that contain multiple terabytes. A terabyte equals 1,024 gigabytes, or more than one billion kilobytes. We have seen clients with tens of thousands of photos saved on their computers, not to mention many hours of home videos or even movies and TV shows. We have seen clients with multi-terabyte drives that were filled up.
With so much data to extract, however, data recovery can take days, even with the state-of-the-art tools that we use. Simply put, more data to recover means more work and longer recovery times.
2. Solid-state drives, which are becoming increasingly common, are harder to recover data from than conventional hard drives.
Unlike a conventional hard drive, a solid-state drive (SSD) has no moving parts. It uses a type of storage called flash memory that allows data to be written to the solid-state drive a limited number of times due to cells wearing out during a write cycle. SSDs are faster and less prone to damage from falling, impact, or shock than conventional hard drives. They have downsides, however, and one of the biggest is the difficulty in recovering lost data. There are five main reasons for this.
A. Unlike a conventional hard drive, a solid-state drive will most likely fail without warning.
Like all mechanical devices, conventional hard drives fail over time. When they are beginning to fail, they often provide warning signs, such as:
• Frequent, irregular crashes, particularly when booting up the operating system
• Long wait times when trying to access files and folders
• A long period of silence after you open a folder or file
• Frequent, strange error message when moving files or performing other normal activities
• Vanishing folders and files
• Clicking or grinding sounds and other strange noises
Solid-state drives are not mechanical devices but fail because of an inherent weakness: they can only erase and re-write their flash cells a limited number of times. After about 3,000 to 10,000 writes, depending on the type of flash cells and manufacturing quality, they tend to fail without warning.
Imagine two people who are critically ill: one who has many specific symptoms and one who has none. It stands to reason that it would be easier to save the patient with many symptoms, since you could take him or her to an emergency room and treat the illness before it became fatal. You can now see one reason why it’s easier to recover data from conventional hard drives than from SSDs. You often won’t know that an SSD has failed until it has stopped working entirely.
Note that it is often possible to recover data from an SSD that has failed entirely, but this is a difficult job.
B. Also unlike a conventional hard drive, SSDs automatically clear erased data after it is deleted.
You may think that files on a conventional hard drive are deleted when you empty the Recycle Bin or Trash, but they aren’t. To understand why, think of every file as having an ID tag that lets your computer know where to find each file when you try to access it. When you empty the Recycle Bin or Trash, the ID tags of the files that were in there are deleted, meaning you can no longer access them by ordinary means. The files are still there, but the space they occupy is marked as available for new files to take up. When new files move into that empty space, then the files are truly gone. This means that a data recovery company can use elaborate tools to scan the erased space and reconstruct files or even the file system to retrieve files that you accidentally deleted.
Most solid-state drives come with a feature called TRIM enabled. To improve performance, this feature automatically erases data once you delete it, making it next to impossible to recover deleted files.
C. It’s harder to find data on an SSD.
On a conventional hard drive, data is transferred from the controller to the platters magnetically, where it’s written as individual bits. To read this data, you just need to go back to the same location.
On a solid-state drive, data is saved using semiconductor chips, and the location of the data is very random. This makes it significantly more difficult to locate data.
D. Data recovery experts have more experience working with conventional hard drives.
While solid-state drives have become more popular in recent years, most data recovery experts still have more experience working with conventional hard drives. As Albert Einstein said—and a large print in our shop reads—“The only source of knowledge is experience.” So, it stands to reason that it’s easier to recover data from the type of hard drive that data recovery experts have more experience working with.
E. There are better-developed tools dedicated to recovering data from conventional hard drives than SSDs.
Since conventional hard drives have been around longer than solid-state drives, there are more hardware and software tools dedicated to recovering data from conventional hard drives. Having the right tools for the job can be the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful data recovery, so it’s no surprise that solid-state drives are harder to work with.
3. The durability of hard drives in the consumer space is diminishing, making them more prone to failure and shock damage.
Like your grandmother said, “They just don’t make things like they used to.” Early computers represented a huge investment and were built to last.
However, as the prices of computers and other digital devices keeps falling, and storage capacity keeps doubling every three to four years, the durability of drives in the consumer space is diminishing. The result is hard drives that are more prone to failure and shock damage, making data recovery more difficult.
Hard drives can fail for a number of reasons, from physical damage from liquids or fire to logical problems, such as faulty firmware. Shock damage is a common cause of hard drive failure. It’s important to note that “shock” here refers to a drop or bump, not electrical shock—although that can cause hard drive failure, too.
Hard drives today age quickly as well. A hard drive should be considered ripe for replacement after about three to four years. Statistics show that after only a few years, the drive failure rate is increasing. Some lucky hard drives last much longer, but unlucky ones fail much sooner, too.
4. The ubiquity of portable devices means devices are more likely to suffer physical damage.
The first computers filled entire rooms. Short of an earthquake, this type of behemoth was unlikely to suffer shock damage. Today, our mobile phones have more computing power than the dinosaurs we talked about earlier.
However, because we carry our phones everywhere, they’re more prone to damage from drops and bumps, not to mention spills and submersions. We have even seen cases of cell phones that have been run over by multiple cars. We also often see mobile phones that have been dropped in the toilet. In fact, according to research performed by online address-book website Plaxo, 19 percent of people have dropped their phones into the toilet.
Similar issues affect all portable devices, such as laptops and tablets, not to mention media devices like external USB hard drives. External storage devices are becoming more common now that computers, particularly laptops, often ship with low-capacity SSD drives, creating a need for external storage. Unfortunately, external hard drives are quite prone to shock or impact damage.
While data recovery is mostly possible in these situations, in rare cases the damage is too great, and the data is lost.
5. Many mobile devices now encrypt data.
Data encryption scrambles data so that only people with a password or a secret key, called a decryption key, can read it. Encrypted data is called ciphertext; unencrypted data is called plaintext. The point of encryption is to protect the confidentiality of data as it’s stored on digital devices and transmitted through the internet or other networks.
Encryption used to be relatively rare, often reserved for cases in which an individual or business wanted to protect particular data. This made data recovery relatively simple, as recovered files would be in plaintext.
Today, encryption is becoming increasingly common on mobile devices. If you’ve set up a passcode that locks your iPhone or iPad, then your messages, emails, attachments, and the data from certain apps that allow data encryption are already scrambled. This is good for security but leaves you out of luck if you forget your passcode or need to recover data through unconventional means after your device becomes too damaged to use normally.
For the purposes of encryption, components are linked together on many mobile devices and external hard drives. For example, an external hard drive can be encrypted at the hardware level, meaning there is a chip that stores a key or reads it from somewhere else and scrambles the data through the chip itself, which is much faster than software encryption, but also more dangerous, since a failure of the circuit that holds the secret key can be disastrous. If you have a board failure, meaning something goes wrong with the device’s circuit board, you need to make sure that you transfer all of the components that are responsible for the encryption chain. If one of the components is missing or defective, you can’t decrypt anything, and therefore, you have no path to the data.
To give another example, on an iPhone 6, the encryption is spread over four components: the CPU (the core of the phone), the NAND (the memory chip), the EEPROM (the read-only memory), and the Baseband CPU (the chip that manages all radio functions). You must make sure that all of these components are transplanted, working, and can communicate for a successful recovery to take place. This process is very time-consuming and requires careful preparation. There are very few data recovery labs in the world that can handle this very delicate procedure—we are one of them.
You can also encrypt your computer yourself using built-into-the-operating-system FileVault (Apple), DiskLocker (Windows), or a free, open-source program like VeraCrypt. Again, however, this presents a problem for data recovery. The encrypted files can may be recovered, but they can only be decrypted with the key.
6. Portable devices are hard to open.
Computers are relatively easy to take apart. On the other hand, portable devices, which are increasingly common, were not designed to be taken apart by consumers. For example, sometimes we have to melt the glue that holds these devices together using a tool that looks like a microwavable heating pad just to pry them open. At times, components are soldered together like a sandwich, sometimes using adhesive. Obviously, this makes the data recovery process more difficult, since just opening the device is time-consuming and must be done with great care.
Portable devices weren’t designed to be repaired, so there’s little incentive for manufacturers to make them easy to take apart. Today, manufacturers expect devices to become obsolete before they break.
7. Components in devices are becoming smaller, and therefore, more difficult to work with.
Remember when we talked about the first computers being the size of rooms? In those days, computer components were so big that, in one often-repeated story, a moth became stuck inside a Harvard University computer. It was literally a computer “bug.”
Today, components in mobile devices are so small that they need to be manipulated under a microscope. High integration density also means that, for example, flash memory capacities keep increasing, so the cells become smaller and smaller, and thus, more fragile. Fragile cells are more prone to failure.
Components in hard drives are becoming smaller, too. When you’re replacing the read/write heads on a hard drive, which are the parts of the hard drive that write and retrieve data, you have to mimic the precision of the factory robots that installed them in the first place. It is a very unforgiving process when you’re dealing with tiny parts.
8. Newer devices often use proprietary components.
When there were fewer types of devices available to consumers, finding parts for any particular device was simpler, as there were not very many options.
Today, to make devices lighter and smaller, manufacturers often make custom parts that are standardized for a particular product. So, once a new device replaces an old one, it can be almost impossible to locate replacement parts. Sometimes parts are not even standardized among the same product. For example, computers of the same model number may contain different parts. To make matters worse, some manufacturers don’t have replacement parts for their own devices, leaving it up to data recovery experts to figure out a way to make a temporary repair that lasts long enough to extract the data from the device.
Shrinking microchips, also known as integrated circuits (ICs), are the number one reason why the size of consumer electronics is decreasing, while increasing processing power. However, integrated circuits don’t have screws or hinges that a data recovery expert can lift to swap out faulty parts when a temporary fix is necessary to extract files. According to Bob Martin of Great Lakes Computer Corporation, “80% of the ICs used in laptops today cannot be purchased by a regular repair center and those that can are very expensive.” Thus, when a temporary repair for data recovery purposes is needed, this adds overhead to the cost.
9. Malware has become an increasingly serious threat.
Malware, which stands for malicious software, refers to software that causes intentional damage to a computer, computer network, or server. Malware causes damage after it’s implanted or somehow introduced to a target’s device. Malware can be executable code, active content, scripts, or other software. Examples of malware include computer viruses, Trojan horses, worms, ransomware, and scareware.
Early viruses and worms were not harmful. The first worm, created by Bob Thomas, was named Creeper and was found on ARPANET, the predecessor to the internet. After copying itself to a remote system, it simply displayed the text “I’m the creeper, catch me if you can!” A program named Reaper was developed by Ray Tomlinson, the creator of email, to delete Creeper.
The first virus to appear “in the wild,” meaning outside of the computer or lab where it was made, was created by computer programmer and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Rich Skrenta as a prank when he was in the ninth grade. It was injected into a video game and spread via floppy disk. The fifth time it was used, the Elk Cloner virus would infect the computer and simply display the following poem:
It will get on all your disks
It will infiltrate your chips
Yes, it’s Cloner!
It will stick to you like glue
It will modify RAM too
Send in the Cloner!
Unfortunately, most viruses today are malicious, and can even lead to data loss. Viruses and malware can affect both Microsoft PCs and Apple Macs. We will cover viruses, trojan horses, ransomware, and scareware in this section.
A. Viruses, Trojan Horses, and Worms
All three of these types of malware can lead to data loss. For example, in 2012, a global online tech publication called “The Register” reported on a virus security researchers called Shamoon that targeted Saudi Arabian national petroleum and natural gas company Saudi Aramco, overwriting data on infected machines and deleting the Master Boot Record, making affected Windows machines impossible to start up. Shamoon reportedly replaced overwritten files with an image of a burning U.S. flag. A total of 30,000 Saudi Aramco workstations were affected.
It is sometimes possible to recover data deleted by a computer virus, trojan horse, or worm. resquoo can remove viruses, trojan horses, and worms, and attempt to restore data.
Ransomware makes data inaccessible by encrypting some or all of the files on the computer. As explained above, files that have been securely encrypted are inaccessible without the key. In this case, only the hacker has the key. After encrypting the user’s files, the program presents the user with a message telling them that their documents have become inaccessible and can only be decrypted if the user sends a Bitcoin payment to the hacker. Bitcoin is used because it’s untraceable and can be sent to anyone around the world.
Worse yet, some types of malware claim to be ransomware, but are actually unable to decrypt the data that they encrypted.
Ransomware encrypted data can be decrypted in some cases in which decryption tools are available to deal with that specific type of malware or in cases in which the malware copies your files, encrypts the copies, and deletes the originals. Unfortunately, however, paying the ransom is sometimes the only way to recover the files, although the amount of the ransom can sometimes be negotiated with the hacker.
Scareware is a type of malware that tricks the user into buying and downloading unneeded and potentially harmful software, such as a fake antivirus program. Scareware doesn’t actually delete files, but it can try to convince you that your files are at risk and the only way to protect them is by purchasing whatever type of protection they claim to be offering. The quickest way to deal with scareware is to ignore its threats and install a legitimate antimalware tool from its official website to remove the scareware. resquoo also can help you remove scareware from your computer.
resquoo is keeping up with developments in data recovery.
As you have read, data recovery has a long history, and one that is rapidly changing today. While the clockwork computers of ancient China and Greece were simple enough that they didn’t store user data that would later need to be recovered, the earliest programmable computer used punch cards that its creators failed to repair. Punch cards were replaced with magnetic tape, magnetic tape was replaced by the hard drive, and hard drives are being replaced by solid-state storage—all of which are vulnerable to data loss.
Meanwhile, consumers are using more data, hard drives in the consumer market are declining in durability, portable devices are everywhere, data is increasingly being encrypted, devices are using more proprietary components, devices are shrinking, and new types of malware are continually being found in the wild. This all adds up to more complex data recoveries.
We at resquoo have always changed with the times, continually updating our hardware and software tools and knowledge to keep up to date with the latest advances in technology. Our engineers frequently travel internationally to attend specialized training sessions and conferences to enhance our knowledge. resquoo staff is Apple-certified and Microsoft-certified, meaning we have received training offered by Apple and Microsoft to allow us to best serve your needs. We never stop learning.
We hope you have enjoyed reading this article. Be sure to check out our sources below if you would like to learn more about any of the topics covered in this blog article.
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Astrid Martinez has been writing professionally since 2011. She specializes in creating content for the web. Currently, she lives with her husband and a tiny calico cat.