So hands up, everyone who's peeked at porn on their computer. Don't be shy. Maybe you were home alone and surfing the Net late at night. Maybe you were having a laugh and wanted to show your pals exactly what came up on the screen when you typed "www.hugeass.com" into your browser, or perhaps your curiosity was piqued by the dozens of trashy e-mails titled "Dear Friend" and "Slammin' Schoolgirls" that appear every day in your in-box.
No harm done, right? You didn't pay for anything and, hey, you threw those nasty pictures and videos straight into the computer's trash bin, so they're gone for good and no one will ever be the wiser, right?
Those photos and MPEGs will be hanging around a lot longer than you thought. Most people assume that when files are trashed on your computer or deleted from your hard drive, they're gone forever. In fact, you'd have to practically melt your hard drive down into a puddle of plastic and circuits, encase it in cement and toss it into a lake for the information to be truly gone forever, and even then someone could probably dig up some dirt on you.
A few weeks ago, when the Who's Pete Townshend was publicly humiliated for looking at kiddie porn -- for "research," he says -- TV cameras captured police investigators hauling away Pete's Apple G4 hard drives for forensic analysis. Many of those watching were shocked, not that Townshend got busted, but that he'd be stupid enough to keep the photos on his hard drive.
Plenty of people admit to casually checking out porn online but believe that because they deleted the files immediately afterward there's no trace of them, so they can't be shamed in public, fired from their job or charged by the cops.
But as one of Toronto's top data recovery analysts explains, deleted or not, all that porn is lurking somewhere in your machine.
"People seem to believe that "delete' means "erase forever.' They have no idea how wrong they are," offers Gordon Bulger of Data Recovery Services. "Whenever anything is deleted, it's just deleted from the file allocation table, which is really your hard drive's table of contents. That space on your hard drive becomes available for use again, but if you don't use it, the information stays there. To remove the files completely would take a hell of a long time. You'd have to fill in all the space on your hard drive with zeroes. That takes ages.
"Even if you format the drive and remove the list of where the files are, they can still be recovered. When we go in, we see files that are broken up all over the place, but we can go through all the little ones and zeroes and say, "That's the beginning of the file, that's the end of the file and that's the file's name.' Suddenly, your deleted information is back again.
"The only real way to prevent that is to get expensive secure software that writes "00000' over every sector of your hard drive. Then even we can't find the information."
Nervous yet? Bulger and other data recovery specialists are regularly hired by suspicious employers, investigating police forces and husbands, wives, boyfriends and girlfriends curious about what their partners have been up to online, and their stories read like the scandal column of a trashy newspaper.
"I do a lot of work for husbands and wives who want to spy on their spouses," Bulger admits. "For example, a woman came in recently and said she'd seen an e-mail on her husband's screen saying he was leaving her on September 15. When she came back, it was erased; her lawyers say she has to have a copy of that to confront him.
"She didn't know what the e-mail was called, so we just scanned through all the erased documents for the key phrase "September 15,' got that document back, and she was able to take it to her lawyer.
"In another instance, a woman was going to leave her husband, saying he'd been mistreating her. He told me she'd been having an affair over the Internet for six months. Her lawyer demanded he produce the evidence, so we went into their hard drive and recovered every e-mail she'd sent to and received from this secret lover. All these e-mails had been deleted, but it was simple. It's all there if you know how to get it."
So how do you protect yourself? If you're paranoid about someone unearthing your deepest, darkest secrets from your hard drive, the obvious answer is not to look at Internet porn on your home computer.
If you are going to surf for porn, don't make the mistake of believing the pop-up ads that promise to sweep clean your hard drive of lurking porn files.
"Most of the ads that come up offering to clean out your secret computer stash are just deleting the temporary files," Bulger laughs. "You can do that, but I'll just come back and undelete them."firstname.lastname@example.org