In computing, data recovery is a process of salvaging (retrieving) inaccessible, lost, corrupted, damaged or formatted data from secondary storage, removable media or files, when the data stored in them cannot be accessed in a normal way. The data is most often salvaged from storage media such as internal or external hard disk drives (HDDs), solid-state drives (SSDs), USB flash drives, magnetic tapes, CDs, DVDs, RAID subsystems, and other electronic devices. Recovery may be required due to physical damage to the storage devices or logical damage to the file system that prevents it from being mounted by the host operating system (OS).
The most common data recovery scenario involves an operating system failure, malfunction of a storage device, logical failure of storage devices, accidental damage or deletion, etc. (typically, on a single-drive, single-partition, single-OS system), in which case the ultimate goal is simply to copy all important files from the damaged media to another new drive. This can be easily accomplished using a Live CD, many of which provide a means to mount the system drive and backup drives or removable media, and to move the files from the system drive to the backup media with a file manager or optical disc authoring software. Such cases can often be mitigated by disk partitioning and consistently storing valuable data files (or copies of them) on a different partition from the replaceable OS system files.
Another scenario involves a drive-level failure, such as a compromised file system or drive partition, or a hard disk drive failure. In any of these cases, the data is not easily read from the media devices. Depending on the situation, solutions involve repairing the logical file system, partition table or master boot record,or updating the firmware or drive recovery techniques ranging from software-based recovery of corrupted data, hardware- and software-based recovery of damaged service areas (also known as the hard disk drive’s “firmware”), to hardware replacement on a physically damaged drive which involves changes the parts of the damaged drive to make the data in a readable form and can be copied to a new drive. If a drive recovery is necessary, the drive itself has typically failed permanently, and the focus is rather on a one-time recovery, salvaging whatever data can be read.
In a third scenario, files have been accidentally “deleted” from a storage medium by the users. Typically, the contents of deleted files are not removed immediately from the physical drive; instead, references to them in the directory structure are removed, and thereafter space the deleted data occupy is made available for later data overwriting. In the mind of end users, deleted files cannot be discoverable through a standard file manager, but the deleted data still technically exists on the physical drive. In the meantime, the original file contents remain, often in a number of disconnected fragments, and may be recoverable if not overwritten by other data files.
The term “data recovery” is also used in the context of forensic applications or espionage, where data which have been encrypted or hidden, rather than damaged, are recovered. Sometimes data present in the computer gets encrypted or hidden due to reasons like virus attack which can only be recovered by some computer forensic experts.
A wide variety of failures can cause physical damage to storage media, which may result from human errors and natural disasters. CD-ROMs can have their metallic substrate or dye layer scratched off; hard disks can suffer any of several mechanical failures, such as head crashes and failed motors; tapes can simply break.
Physical damage to a hard drive, even in cases where a head crash has occurred, does not necessarily mean there will be permanent loss of data. The techniques employed by many professional data recovery companies can typically salvage most, if not all, of the data that had been lost when the failure occurred.
Of course there are exceptions to this, such as cases where severe damage to the hard drive platters may have occurred. However, if the hard drive can be repaired and a full image or clone created, then the logical file structure can be rebuilt in most instances.
Most physical damage cannot be repaired by end users. For example, opening a hard disk drive in a normal environment can allow airborne dust to settle on the platter and become caught between the platter and the read/write head. During normal operation, read/write heads float 3 to 6 nanometers above the platter surface, and the average dust particles found in a normal environment are typically around 30,000 nanometers in diameter. When these dust particles get caught between the read/write heads and the platter, they can cause new head crashes that further damage the platter and thus compromise the recovery process. Furthermore, end users generally do not have the hardware or technical expertise required to make these repairs. Consequently, data recovery companies are often employed to salvage important data with the more reputable ones using class 100 dust- and static-free cleanrooms.
Recovering data from physically damaged hardware can involve multiple techniques. Some damage can be repaired by replacing parts in the hard disk. This alone may make the disk usable, but there may still be logical damage. A specialized disk-imaging procedure is used to recover every readable bit from the surface. Once this image is acquired and saved on a reliable medium, the image can be safely analyzed for logical damage and will possibly allow much of the original file system to be reconstructed.
Media that has suffered a catastrophic electronic failure requires data recovery in order to salvage its contents.
A common misconception is that a damaged printed circuit board (PCB) may be simply replaced during recovery procedures by an identical PCB from a healthy drive. While this may work in rare circumstances on hard disk drives manufactured before 2003, it will not work on newer drives. Electronics boards of modern drives usually contain drive-specific adaptation data (generally a map of bad sectors and tuning parameters) and other information required to properly access data on the drive. Replacement boards often need this information to effectively recover all of the data. The replacement board may need to be reprogrammed. Some manufacturers (Seagate, for example) store this information on a serial eeprom which can be removed and transferred to the replacement board.
Each hard disk drive has what is called a system area or service area; this portion of the drive, which is not directly accessible to the end user, usually contains drive’s firmware and adaptive data that helps the drive operate within normal parameters. One function of the system area is to log defective sectors within the drive; essentially telling the drive where it can and cannot write data.
The sector lists are also stored on various chips attached to the PCB, and they are unique to each hard disk drive. If the data on the PCB do not match what is stored on the platter, then the drive will not calibrate properly. In most cases the drive heads will click because they are unable to find the data matching what is stored on the PCB.
After data has been physically overwritten on a hard disk drive, it is generally assumed that the previous data are no longer possible to recover. In 1996, Peter Gutmann, a computer scientist, presented a paper that suggested overwritten data could be recovered through the use of magnetic force microscope. In 2001, he presented another paper on a similar topic. To guard against this type of data recovery, Gutmann and Colin Plumb designed a method of irreversibly scrubbing data, known as the Gutmann method and used by several disk-scrubbing software packages.
Substantial criticism has followed, primarily dealing with the lack of any concrete examples of significant amounts of overwritten data being recovered. Although Gutmann’s theory may be correct, there is no practical evidence that overwritten data can be recovered, while research has shown to support that overwritten data cannot be recovered.
Solid-state drives (SSD) overwrite data differently from hard disk drives (HDD) which makes at least some of their data easier to recover. Most SSDs use flash memory to store data in pages and blocks, referenced by logical block addresses (LBA) which are managed by the flash translation layer (FTL). When the FTL modifies a sector it writes the new data to another location and updates the map so the new data appear at the target LBA. This leaves the pre-modification data in place, with possibly many generations, and recoverable by data recovery software.
Lost, deleted, and formatted data
Sometimes, data present in the physical drives (Internal/External Hard disk, Pen Drive, etc) gets lost, deleted and formatted due to circumstances like virus attack, accidental deletion or accidental use of SHIFT+DELETE. In these cases, data recovery software are used to recover/restore the data files.
Remote data recovery
Recovery experts do not always need to have physical access to the damaged hardware. When the lost data can be recovered by software techniques, they can often perform the recovery using remote access software over the Internet, LAN or other connection to the physical location of the damaged media. The process is essentially no different from what the end user could perform by themselves.
Remote recovery requires a stable connection with an adequate bandwidth. However, it is not applicable where access to the hardware is required, as in cases of physical damage.
Four phases of data recovery
Usually, there are four phases when it comes to successful data recovery, though that can vary depending on the type of data corruption and recovery required.
Repair the hard disk drive
Repair the hard disk drive so it is running in some form, or at least in a state suitable for reading the data from it. For example, if heads are bad they need to be changed; if the PCB is faulty then it needs to be fixed or replaced; if the spindle motor is bad the platters and heads should be moved to a new drive.
Image the drive to a new drive or a disk image file
When a hard disk drive fails, the importance of getting the data off the drive is the top priority. The longer a faulty drive is used, the more likely further data loss is to occur. Creating an image of the drive will ensure that there is a secondary copy of the data on another device, on which it is safe to perform testing and recovery procedures without harming the source.
Logical recovery of files, partition, MBR and filesystem structures
After the drive has been cloned to a new drive, it is suitable to attempt the retrieval of lost data. If the drive has failed logically, there are a number of reasons for that. Using the clone it may be possible to repair the partition table or master boot record (MBR) in order to read the file system’s data structure and retrieve stored data.
Repair damaged files that were retrieved
Data damage can be caused when, for example, a file is written to a sector on the drive that has been damaged. This is the most common cause in a failing drive, meaning that data needs to be reconstructed to become readable. Corrupted documents can be recovered by several software methods or by manually reconstructing the document using a hex editor.