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If you have a private data on a recent, normal hard drive - how often do you have to delete the data, to make it unrecoverable.

Not in the sense, that a forensic team of 20 experts with a budget of 100 million euro or dollars and 10 years of time to restore a couple of bytes from a known adress with 80% accuracy, but few people with a few 1000 €/$ budget, who wouldn't spend more than two weeks on the job, and who don't know where on the drive they are searching.

Linux/Gnu shred says in the manual:

   -n, --iterations=N
          overwrite N times instead of the default (3)

but I heared about an NSA suggestion to overwrite 27 times on the one side, and professional data recovery firms, which can't recover files, which were wiped just once.

Evidence, papers, opinions, prove, knowledge? How often?

Note: What this question is not:

  • It's not about bad sectors, where data might slip through
  • It's not about old MFM/RLL-drives from the early 90ies
  • It's not about different tools
  • It's not so much about the method (random numbers 0s, 0xFF and fancy patterns).
  • It's not about different techniques to wipe it securely (magnetic power, melting, filling with sand and turning).
  • It's not about special problems of flash drives
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No one has ever proven to recover any useful data after 1 overwrite on a modern hard drive....nber.org/sys-admin/overwritten-data-gutmann.html –  Moab Apr 13 '11 at 23:14

2 Answers 2

up vote 23 down vote accepted


Modern magnetic media are quite efficient, and leave behind very little evidence of former bit positions. What is left behind requires electron microscopes and/or high-tech magnetometric (or whatever they're called) scanners. All such devices are horrendously expensive, and even with the best equipment and most-skilled experts, it takes a monumental amount of time (think years for a single platter; all hard disks have multiple platters) and has a very high failure rate.

If you're dealing with government secrets (as the NSA is) then write-once probably isn't good enough, because China has no problem obtaining and using these devices, nor employing teams of hundreds of specialized experts to use them.

If, on the other hand, you're merely dealing with personal banking passwords and your secret pr0n stash, a single pass is plenty sufficient to render the data completely unrecoverable from any practical means.

That said, modern disks are quite fast, and unless you're wiping the entirety of a hard drive multiple passes take so little time that there's really no reason not to do them. Thus, while the fallacy that you have to overwrite multiple times with complex patterns of passes is widespread enough that all "secure deletion" software defaults to multiple passes, there's really very little point to overriding those defaults. When I used shred (default number of passes: 3) I let it do its 3 passes; when I use Eraser on Windows (default number of passes on a file: 35), I let it do its 35 passes. (Eraser defaults to only a single pass when deleting free space on a hard drive; this, too, I let run at the default.)

So the answer to your question (How many passes are needed?) is: "One." The answer to your implied question (Should I override shred's default 3 passes?) is: "Nah."

On the other hand, if you are a secret government agent, well, one pass really isn't enough because you do have China after your data. If this is the case, though, you should be asking your superior/handler what your agency's regulations are regarding secure deletion of sensitive data, not SU. ;-)

Caveat: Flash-based media employ a system called "wear leveling" to extend the life of the device. Without going into the details of what the term means or the reasons behind it, it means that you really can't securely delete files on flash-based media unless you securely wipe the entire media, and even that can't always guarantee that the wear-leveling algorithms didn't leave behind un-wiped data that you couldn't write to. In the case of flash-based media, your best bet is to simply encrypt any and all sensitive data that goes onto it, using a strong password.

TrueCrypt's documentation includes an excellent discussion of this problem, and ways to solve it.

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Many, many pluses for an awesome answer. Too bad I have only one to give. :( –  CajunLuke Apr 13 '11 at 23:47
that totally nailed it. I'd also add, the old 35 pass guttman wipe assumed that you didn't know what type of drive you used, and as such ran patterns specific to MFM and other obsolete designs –  Journeyman Geek Apr 14 '11 at 3:26
One caveat with regard to disks is that in theory some data can be recovered by offsetting the head to pick up data written when the drive was warmer or cooler and hence the head was positioned slightly differently. But I've never heard of this technique actually being employed (outside of the NSA, at least). –  Daniel R Hicks Sep 26 '13 at 3:16
I'm highly skeptical of that claim, Daniel, given that each bit is written independently as a single magnetic, well, bit; for this claim to have any merit, you would have to lose data as your drive warmed/cooled because the head would be "offset" from the bit -- basically this claim is predicated on the assumption that you inherently lose data just be letting your drive get warm inside your computer, and that just simply doesn't happen. –  Kromey Sep 30 '13 at 22:41

I can't give precise details, but I know someone who knows someone (etc) who works for the NSA who claims to have recovered data from a drive overwritten 13x. Separately, they were able to restore 98% data from a hard drive ground to fragments as small as 3mm wide.

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Without a source that's more authoritative than "a friend of a friend", I'm highly skeptical of this, especially the latter claim. –  John Bensin Sep 26 '13 at 3:08

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