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The don’ts and don’ts of DIY data recovery

(Image credit: IT Pro Portal)

With so many of us owning multiple personal devices, many of us are turning to the internet to inform ourselves about what to do if faced with data loss or storage device failure, as opposed to contacting a professional data recovery service provider. There is a plethora of free software tools out there and many of them provide sophisticated ‘fixes’. To the untrained eye it seems like a no-brainer to take a DIY approach to data recovery. However, the capabilities of these tools are often limited and if not understood properly can do more harm than good.

The don’ts and don’ts of downloads

Many free programmes require the user to download software. This can create its own security risks if it’s not from a reputable site: the myriad of cyber-attacks reported on a weekly basis currently have brought this risk to the fore. 

They also highlight our dependency on data and the sensitivity around other people accessing it. Nowadays with apps advancing at a rapid rate and more and more of us storing banking details, health information and personal data on our devices, it is becoming crucial to understand what to do and what not to do if your data is at risk. 

The first thing to watch out for  is that a basic action such as running a simple scan of the device, which  may seem undisruptive, can quickly wipe out files that might otherwise have been recoverable. This is of course the worst case scenario.

Conversely, there are instances where downloadable tools can be a real help, especially if you have an external storage (USB hard drive, SD card, etc.) and have accidentally deleted data or formatted the device. BUT we always advise anyone following a DIY method to never use data recovery software on the same system on which you have lost data, as this will write more data to your drive which could quickly destroy lost or deleted files by overwriting them. 

In short, it can be very easy to make things worse when using DIY software, so always proceed with caution.

From software to hardware DIY

Some solutions advise the user to open the hard drive and fix problems like ‘buzzing’ and ‘clicking’ noises, which are usually associated with physical failures. Doing so outside of a cleanroom environment can cause irreparable damage to your data and we strongly advise against it. We regularly receive drives that have been opened where small dust particles and even the slightest scratches or dents have caused significant harm and made potentially successful recoveries impossible.

Overall, free tools do provide solutions, but deciphering which tool is required for which problem is where professional help is necessary. For most it’s a gamble and when it works you’ve hit the jackpot and it will fix the issue, however as with any wager you have to weigh up the potential costs. Picking the wrong tool could lead to further errors make the data harder to access and permanently irrecoverable.

Who said home remedies were only for the sniffles

Some less technical and slightly more unconventional DIY recovery process that are also becoming a popular safety net in the event of data loss or hard drive failure are home remedies. The oldest trick in the book is the constant restarting of the device in the hope that it will fix itself. The repeated rebooting may actually cause further damage. We always recommend stopping using the device but it is best practice to switch off (once) and call a reputable computer repair or data recovery company.

It can get a bit more extreme than that though. An urban legend once said that leaving your hard drive in the freezer or refrigerator will fix it. This is not true at all. By doing this the only thing that you will achieve is a frozen and broken hard drive. Other comical home myths include hanging your device out ‘to dry’ if liquid gets in, leaving your device is rice to draw the liquid out (although this won’t cause further damage it also will not solve the issue), and lastly leaving a device in an airing cupboard (this may in fact contribute to the damage due to the humidity in this environment). 

We cannot deny that we have all been there when we panic to try and save our data and deciphering whether a myth will actually help get it back or make the situation worse is always difficult. It is our natural reaction to do all that we can  to help save our data but, like the technical DIY ‘fixes’, sometimes this can cause more harm than good.

With personal and confidential information being stored on our devices we recommend the following in order to be prepared for the worst:

  • Keep calm, stop using the device and assess your situation rationally
  • Don’t try to recover data using DIY tools multiple times as it could make matters worse
  • Never open up a drive outside a clean room environment

Depending on the data at risk and its value to the user, it may look like the DIY approach may be worth a try. However, the chances are very high that the user’s efforts will not work out and could even lead to data being lost forever. 

Before even getting to the point of needing to recover data, there is some general advice that also applies to everyone managing their own devices:

  • Perform regular backups onto the cloud or external hard drives – this will ensure a safe copy of your data and ensure you have the best possibility of a successful recovery.
  • Update device software and security when available – many devices prompt software upgrades which will ensure the highest level of protection.
  • Anti-viral protection – we advise that any personal device is protected with reputable anti-viral software to reduce the risk of attacks and ransomware hacking in.

And finally, if you are ever in doubt on the best steps to take seek advice from a data recovery professional. Here at Kroll Ontrack we provide free advice and will always be happy to assist in helping you save your data. 

Phil Bridge, Senior Research & Development Engineer, Kroll Ontrack (opens in new tab)
Image Credit: IT Pro Portal

Phil Bridge is Managing Director, EMEA, Data & Storage Technologies at Kroll Ontrack. For more information about Kroll Ontrack and its offerings please visit: follow @KrollOntrackUK on Twitter or subscribe to the Kroll Ontrack Data Blog.