When it comes to the data on your phone, deleting a text isn’t the end of the story

Texts and other electronic messages from the US Secret Service have become a subject of controversy after the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security told Congress that these recordings have been deleted after his office requested it. But can text or other digital messages ever truly be erased from existence?

People delete text messages and other email messages for many reasons: to free up space on their device; sever contact after a sour conversation; and, from time to time, delete a conversation, for one reason or another.

But deleting a numeric match isn’t as easy as you might think. For starters, depending on the program you use, the recipient always has a copy of the message you sent them. And that data can live in cloud storage.

Alfred Demirjian, founder and CEO of TechFusion, has spent the past 35 years in digital forensics and data recovery in Boston. He said that once you hit send, that information will likely exist forever, especially if the government wants what you sent.

“My theory – and I think I’m right – anything digital is recorded; you text anything, it’s recorded somewhere,” Demirjian said. “If it’s for national security, they’ll open it, if they want it, they’ll find it.”

When you delete data from your device – a photo, video, text or document – it doesn’t disappear. Instead, your device labels that space as available to be replaced with new information.

Digital investigators trained to detect deleted data use a method called jailbreaking to recover information from computers, iPhones, Androids and other devices.

Once the memory of this device is fully filled, new information is saved in addition to these deleted items. Which might be good for those who take lots of innocent photos and videos. These larger files overwrite old text, photos, etc.

“When you delete something, it doesn’t erase it, it basically makes it available for the system to copy over,” Demirjian said.

But these days, phones, computers, and tablets come with more and more storage space. Which means the chances of you filling up that device before you have to clean up are less likely, which improves the chances of an investigator picking up that data.

Even if an individual has exhausted their memory over and over again, investigators may still be able to recover deleted items.

“Even if it’s crashed, it’s still salvageable, but not everything,” Demirjian said. “It takes a very long time and it’s very expensive, but some things are salvageable.”

If someone is desperate to wipe their device, they can have it professionally erased, Demirjian said, but that can be expensive. This may be why some resort to extreme measures to destroy digital evidence.

People have tried slamming their phones with a hammer and throwing laptops into the ocean, but even then a trained digital forensics specialist could probably salvage what they need. Burning a device into a pile of molten plastic, however, tends to do the trick.

Demirjian has worked for NASA, IBM, Harvard and MIT, law enforcement organizations, the Department of Transportation and more. And while he considers himself an expert in digital forensics, he says some government agencies have access to data recovery tools that even he doesn’t.

That being the case, Demirjian said it’s best to practice being “politically correct” if you’re sending something questionable.

“Don’t write something that you’re going to be sorry about later if someone tells you about it,” he said.

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