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

When you save or send photos, videos, texts and other digital messages on your devices, that data is extremely difficult to remove, even if you delete it from your phone or computer.
Nicolas Tucat
AFP via Getty Images
When you save or send photos, videos, texts and other digital messages on your devices, that data is extremely difficult to remove, even if you delete it from your phone or computer.

Texts and other electronic messages from the U.S. Secret Service have become a point a controversy after the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general told Congress that those records were deleted after his office had requested them. But can a text or other digital messages ever truly be erased from existence?

People delete text messages and other electronic messages for many reasons: to free up room on their device; to break contact after a sour conversation; and, from time to time, to wipe out a conversation, for one reason or another.

But deleting a digital correspondence isn't as easy as you might think. For starters, depending on the program you're using, the recipient still has a copy of the message you sent them. And that data might live on 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 whatever you've sent.

"My theory — and I believe I am right — anything digital gets recorded; you text anything, it gets recorded somewhere," Demirjian said. "If it's for national security, they will open it up, if they want it, they will find it."

When you delete a piece of data from your device — a photo, video, text or document — it doesn't vanish. Instead, your device labels that space as available to be overwritten by new information.

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

Once the memory on that device fills up entirely, new information is saved on top of those deleted items. Which could be good for those who take loads of innocent photos and videos. Those larger files overwrite old texts, photos and so on.

"When you delete something, it doesn't erase it, it basically makes it available for the system to copy on top of it," Demirjian said.

But these days, phones, computers and tablets come with larger and larger storage. Which means the odds of you filling up that device before having to clean house, is less likely, improving the odds of an investigator recovering that data.

Even if an individual has maxed out their memory time and time again, investigators may still be able to retrieve deleted items.

"Even if it is overwritten, it is still recoverable, but not everything," Demirjian said. "It takes a very long time and its very expensive, but some things are recoverable."

If a person is desperate to wipe their device, they can have it professionally erased, Demirjian said, but it can be costly. Which may be why some resort to extreme measures to destroy digital evidence.

People have tried bashing their phone with a hammer and throwing laptops into the ocean, but even then, a skilled digital forensics specialist could likely recover what they need. Burning a device into a molten pile of plastic, however, tends to do the trick.

Demirjian has done work for NASA, IBM, Harvard and MIT, police organizations, the Department of Transportation and more. And though he considers himself an expert in digital forensics, he says some government agencies have access to data recovery tools that even he doesn't have.

That being the case, Demirjian said it's best to practice being "politically correct," if sending something questionable.

"Don't write something that you're going to be sorry about later if someone brings it up to you," he said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.