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Smash smartphone. Throw it in the ocean. Hope DriveSavers doesn't get it.

Alex Wawro | June 6, 2013
Hope DriveSavers doesn't get it. A Northern California man being pursued by police smashes his own smartphone and throws it into the ocean.

According to DriveSavers Director of Engineering Mike Cobb, most engineers develop unique specialties over time. Some workers are firmware wizards, while others are better suited for the delicate physical work of extracting broken storage media from destroyed smartphones. Some are even more esoteric: Michael Hall claims the enterprise production lead, while Joseph (last name withheld for security reasons) has an innate talent for visualizing how the RAID structure of a storage array ought to look. It's sort of like how Neo visualizes the Matrix, except instead of seeing computer code he's seeing stripes of data spreading across 12 different hard drives.

It's a talent that's more useful than you'd think. A few years back, when a 12-drive RAID 0 array carrying mission-critical flight readiness reports and inspection records suffered catastrophic failure at Shaw Air Force Base in North Carolina, these data engineers were able to rebuild it and save a bunch of Air Force recruits from having to repeat their training.

Digital forensics works pretty much the same way. A Northern California man being pursued by police smashed his own smartphone and threw it into the ocean. The phone--what was left of it--was given over to DriveSavers engineers as part of a criminal investigation.

Salvaged smartphone sings
Oh, and that smashed smartphone? The engineers rebuilt the phone in the cleanroom using basically the same process outlined above. They salvaged all data from the onboard memory, including photos that implicated the phone's owner in a brazen robbery. The data was later entered as evidence in a court of law and used to to prosecute the phone-bashing robber. It's a nice story that elucidates the slightly scary side of data recovery: Skilled engineers can often salvage data we work very hard to destroy.

If there's one thing to take away from my time at DriveSavers, it's that our data is a lot more permanent than we think it is. So don't worry so much about whether your mobile security is up to snuff or if your Snapchat photos are really private. If someone lays hands on a piece of storage media containing your private data (encrypted, deleted, or otherwise), there's a decent chance they can salvage it if they're willing to work hard enough. So take logical precautions, encrypt your data, and use a secure backup strategy to avoid having to shell out for an expensive data recovery service.


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