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Mason professor: Your deleted texts are probably still there

January 26, 2018

Jim Jones

Increased use and reliance on digital devices means that we can expect to see more high-profile cases involving critical losses of data, but a George Mason University researcher says that we should be careful what we text, because that information is never really gone.

“Data is often lost to the owner,” said James “Jim” Jones, an associate professor in the Volgenau School of Engineering’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, “but, in fact, it does exist ‘somewhere.’”

The issue recently jumped to the forefront of the national political discussion when the FBI disclosed that it could not find five months of texts originating from a large number of its agents. The Justice Department announced Thursday that the texts had been retrieved.

A cybersecurity and digital forensics practitioner, researcher and educator for more than 20 years in industry, government and academia, Jones said it remains “technically pretty easy” for others to find texts or other data that has been accidentally deleted or even intentionally erased.

“We just look through the raw media—meaning the whole device, existing and deleted files and unused space—and find fragments or intact files or messages since we often know what they look like,” Jones said. “Deleting a digital file or message means marking that storage space as available for future use, but the data remains intact until such future use occurs.”

Texts that are backed up could still be around if deleted, Jones said. Backups are really just files, he said, so a deleted backup would persist in parts just like a deleted file. How much of that information could be recovered depends on how the data was deleted, subsequent system usage and what kind of media was being used.

Jones recommends that people should presume that texts that they wouldn’t ever want read by others will eventually be found and act accordingly.

Jim Jones, associate professor in Mason’s Digital Forensics and Cyber Analysis program, can be reached at 703-993-5599 or at jjonesu@gmu.edu.

For more information, contact John Hollis at 703-993-8781 or jhollis2@gmu.edu

About George Mason 

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 36,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.