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Secure Programming Cookbook for C and C++ by Matt Messier, John Viega

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2.5. Erasing Files Securely

Problem

You want to erase a file securely, preventing recovery of any data via “undelete” tools or any inspection of the disk for data that has been left behind.

Solution

Write over the data in the file multiple times, varying the data written each time. You should write both random and patterned data for maximum effectiveness.

Discussion

Warning

It is extremely difficult, if not outright impossible, to guarantee that the contents of a file are completely unrecoverable on modern operating systems that offer logging filesystems, virtual memory, and other such features.

Securely deleting files from disk is not as simple as issuing a system call to delete the file from the filesystem. The first problem is that most delete operations do not do anything to the data; they merely delete any underlying metadata that the filesystem uses to associate the file contents with the filename. The storage space where the actual data is stored is then marked free and will be reclaimed whenever the filesystem needs that space.

The result is that to truly erase the data, you need to overwrite it with nonsense before the filesystem delete operation is performed. Many times, this overwriting is implemented by simply zeroing all the bytes in the file. While this will certainly erase the file from the perspective of most conventional utilities, the fact that most data is stored on magnetic media makes this more complicated.

More sophisticated tools can analyze the actual media and ...

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