Imagine working on a project for a presentation into the wee hours of the night, and out of nowhere, there’s a power outage.
You reboot the computer and the files you were working on are nowhere to be found. They are not in the recycle bin and it feels like you're out of options.
But all is not lost, according to Calvin Khor, CEO and founder of SecretLab Data Recovery, as data on a storage device will not just "miraculously disappear".
"The data will still reside within the storage device, and it will still be accessible in the hands of a reliable data recovery specialist.
"Unless the damage has affected the platter on a hard disk drive (HDD) or flash memory on a solid-state drive (SSD)," he says, adding that users at home could even recover data by themselves in certain cases.
Cause and effect
When it comes to what gives rise to data loss, Khor said there are several major contributing factors.
"Data loss is mainly caused by two factors, one is wear and tear after a long period of usage, and the second is mishandling by users.
"As the HDD gets older, the mechanical parts of the HDD start to wear out and begin to fail, and the platter in the drive will start developing bad sectors, causing certain parts of the storage to become inaccessible.
"Dropping the device or not executing a proper shutdown before removing it (an external drive) from a PC or laptop are also examples of mishandling that can cause data loss," he says.
Data recovery technician Ivan Soo Chee Yang, who works for the Data Recovery Center based out of Kuala Lumpur, shared a few other common causes.
"Factors such as viruses, malware and human errors like accidental deletion or modification of system files can cause data to become corrupted.
"And even natural disasters can result in a loss of data due to physical damage to storage devices.
"Depending on the nature of the data loss, it may not always be possible to recover the data in its entirety.
"Data recovery is not always guaranteed, and the success rate depends on several factors, including the severity of the data loss, the condition of the storage media, and the expertise of the data recovery specialists," he says.
One of the biggest challenges, according to Soo, is physical damage to HDDs, SSDs, or other types of storage media, which can often make data recovery difficult or even impossible.
For Khor, data recovery efforts can be divided into three categories: data level, disk level, and drive level.
"The data level applies when the HDD is still in working condition and data is lost due to accidental deletion or formatting of the HDD or SSD.
"This is basically the easiest stage of data recovery, as it can be resolved using a data recovery application.
"Regular users with a bit of technical knowledge can do this themselves with proper care," says Khor.
He adds that one common mistake most users make is recovering the data back to the same media instead of using a different storage device to avoid overwriting data that has yet to be recovered.
This is because even when data is deleted from a storage device, it isn't erased from the media – the data will remain as long as it’s not replaced with new data, which is what allows the recovery of deleted files.
By restoring the files to the original drive, users run the risk of overwriting the deleted files, making further recovery near impossible.
"The disk level is a more complicated stage where the storage media has encountered firmware issues, file system corruption, or even bad sectors that disallow it to be run properly by an operating system.
"For these types of cases, it usually takes two to three days to resolve minor bad sector damage.
"Cases with severe bad sector damage will take longer, depending on the severity of the bad sector – some cases with larger capacity may take weeks.
"The most complicated stage of the data recovery is the drive level, which is mainly due to mechanical issues.
"This requires the HDD to be ‘operated’ to fix the mechanical parts before the data is accessible again.
"Usually, this will take three to five days or longer if there's severe bad sector damage on the platter," he says.
Khor adds that it can be especially challenging when drive-level cases are centred around old hardware, as some customers have approached him with drives dating back over 15 years, making it especially difficult to source parts for repair.
Doing it yourself
As mentioned by both Soo and Khor, data recovery at home is a possibility, especially for the more technologically savvy.
"There are a lot of options for data recovery software that can help recover deleted files, formatted partitions, or data from logically damaged drives.
"These tools would typically scan the storage media and attempt to recover lost or inaccessible data.
"This method would be most effective for accidental deletions or logical errors rather than physical damage to the storage device or media," says Soo.
He also echoed Khor's warning about misusing software, which could result in permanent data loss.
The tech community tends to recommend against opting for free software for data recovery, with some claiming that it can be largely ineffective at finding all the missing files and, at worst, even make them unrecoverable.
Among the more reputable options for paid software, which is mostly priced between US$50 and US$100 (RM220 and RM450) are R-Studio, File Scavenger, GetDataBack, UFS Explorer, and DMDE.
This makes them quite a tough sell if all you're trying to do is recover a few files – in this case, it may be best to download the demo versions to check if your files are still salvageable.
Demo versions will still be able to restore data, but come with caveats, as some programs may place a limit on the number of files or folders that can be recovered or file size.
DMDE's demo is one of the more flexible options, as its only limitation is that it can only recover up to 4,000 files at a time, regardless of size, which may require multiple scans if many files are being restored.
The software can be downloaded from the companies’ respective websites. Once installed, they will perform a scan and list the affected drive and the files and folders that it can recover.
Again, remember to install the program and recover the files to a different drive to avoid overwriting the data you are trying to recover.
"This sort of scan can take a few hours to even multiple days, depending on the storage media capacity.
"The downside is that the user needs to pay for the licence to use the applications even though it's for one-time usage," says Khor, adding the cost may be similar to approaching a professional.
Soo recommends that users evaluate both their storage device and themselves before attempting recovery at home.
"It's crucial to assess the severity of the data loss and know your technical capabilities before attempting DIY data recovery.
"If the data is critical or irreplaceable, or if you are unsure about the cause or appropriate recovery method, it's best to consult with a professional data recovery service to increase the chances of successful data retrieval and minimise the risk of permanent loss," he says.
Some service providers, like SecretLab Data Recovery and the Data Recovery Centre, do not charge customers if data recovery is impossible, which makes it a more attractive option for those unwilling to tinker around.
However, the price will depend on the type of damage, according to Soo, who gave a price breakdown.
Restoration of data from logical damage (accidental formatting, corruption, and viruses) for SSDs (including memory cards and USB drives) and HDDs can start as low as RM150 and run up to RM600.
It gets steeper if there is physical damage, with repairs for damaged PCBs (printed circuit boards), firmware corruption, and bad sectors costing between RM600 and RM2,600 for SSDs.
Pricing for physically damaged HDDs is in a wider range, between RM500 and RM3,400, depending on the type of repair required and if it would require the use of a cleanroom.
Those using more elaborate storage setups, like a server, can expect to be charged anything from RM2,000 to RM5,000.
Khor claims that many computer repair shops that offer to help with data recovery at a much lower cost may not have the right data recovery environment, such as cleanrooms designed to minimise dust particulates in the air, or tools to manage it.
He also adds that in the event of data loss, users should immediately back up any data that is still accessible on the device and avoid tinkering with it unless they know what they are doing before seeking out a data recovery professional.
Some people may be concerned about the privacy of their data, as they will have to hand over their storage devices to data recovery service providers.
In such cases, it’s important to ensure that the service provider offers a non-disclosure agreement that ensures the confidentiality of the information recovered from the devices.
To avoid data loss, making backups of your files is essential (read Save It Or Lose It, StarLifestyle, April 3; online at bit.ly/techbackups), but it will require additional investment in hardware.
However, it’s a worthwhile investment for data that you cannot afford to lose, or alternatively, consider backing up to free cloud storage.
Google offers 15GB of free storage while Microsoft offers 5GB, and Khor recommends that users subscribe to a plan for more storage if they can afford and require it.
"If users have more budget, they can opt for a network-attached storage device," he says.
Meanwhile, Soo advises ensuring backups are scheduled regularly and automatically, even recommending keeping both onsite and offsite backups.
In the end, the best way to protect your data is to create backups, because hardware failure is inevitable no matter how well you take care of it.