Grave Robbing in the Modern World

Jeffery Doherty, Reporter

When you delete files on your computer, you often believe they’re gone. When you empty the recycle bin, and files are permanently deleted, it’s normal to think those files are gone, forever. Think again. Files, are just like the bodies we have in the real world. We take up space, and when we die, we’re often buried in an allotted place; a graveyard. When you think of a grave robber, you think of someone with a shovel and a lantern, going into a graveyard to dig up some rich guy’s grave, or use the bones for voodoo magic. Now think for a moment of the connection between the two. It’s easy to know where I am leading you. In the modern world, it’s not often that grave robbing occurs in the real world, but, it occurs more in the digital world. It’s the “digging up” of “dead” files.

Every device that runs on power and uses software to operate has a hard drive. Even calculators have hard drives; that’s how they’re able to compute functions you input. A hard drive often runs on a magnetic reading system, similar to a record player. A magnetic disk spins, and a reading arm reads it nearly thousands of times a second, allowing you to operate smoothly on a computer, or a calculator.  On the disk is the “image,” or laser imprint of a file or a program that runs using files. The arm reads the image and that’s how you can read a document you’ve downloaded, or play a game you’ve installed onto your computer’s hard drive. Hard drives are also designed with a designated band where deleted files go. Think of it like a graveyard. The files are laid to rest, and the other part of the disk it once took up is free to be written over again with new files, or data.

These “buried” files stay on the disk just in case you delete something you didn’t mean to delete. You can recover deleted files with multiple disk utilities or programs, that let you gain back that data or file by rewriting the old information onto a new section of the disk. Though, just like a graveyard, the truth often goes to the “grave.” Files you delete, like Social Security information, bank statements, as well as more intimate files, remain in this graveyard among other files. When a hard drive is thrown out and replaced, the disk is still imprinted with the data it has in its “graveyard.” That’s where the grave robber comes in. A “grave robber” can obtain the hard drive from a dump, or access it by hacking into your computer. Hard drive (and their disks) that are thrown out into a real world dump, often are damaged by acids and the magnetism of lifting cranes.  However, the data on them sometimes survives. There is also the fact that America exports a large part of its trash to China. According to Forbes Magazine, since 2007, trash has been the top American export to China. Workers in China disassemble hard drives and recycle the metals to be remade into products, to be sold again.

Within this system are those who rob the digital graves. These grave robbers go to landfills and collect thrown out hard drives. Hard drives, with compromises to the protective casing, are thrown away.  The data on them is likely to have been irreversibly damaged by acids or the environment (salt water, corrosive soil, etc). The grave robbers take these hard drives and extract the magnetic disk from within the hard drive shell. The grave robbers then put the disk onto an incomplete hard drive, and use it as if it were a record player; putting on and taking off disks whenever they want. The disk is then read and various programs are used to extract the surviving data from the hard drive. The surviving data can be pictures, programs, and most importantly, files.

How does electronic grave robbing affect you? Your personal information can be resurrected to be used in the theft of your identity, Social Security number, or bank account. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2013, 11% of internet user had their bank accounts, Social Security numbers, and other personal information stolen from them. The likely hood of your information being stolen via a thrown out hard drive is slim, yet it connects to a larger idea. The internet and technology, as we know it, is connected to our lives in inextricable ways. Who we are, what we believe, and our interactions with other people around us are made easily accessible, as well as easily expressed. In a way, if you want to really keep your old deleted files safe, as well as yourself, you do the same thing you’d do with dead bodies; burn them. Not literally, but you can wipe a hard drive clean using a new hard drive, running the system you want and a program you’d use on your new hard drive. Wiping the slate clean, magnetically, is the ultimate solution.

But it’s hard to stop thinking about how the digital world is nearly as tangible as the real world. How accessible it is, and how it can affect us has been pondered since the drafting of the first “computer,” the ENIAC (the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) in 1943. The ENIAC was a calculator used to calculate artillery firing tables; tables used to decided how to fire a large explosive projectile to kill people. The ENIAC was even used to calculate the damage and feasibility of a thermonuclear weapon; an atom bomb. The way technology affects us evolves everyday, and the way we deal with the intertwining of technology with the real world is constantly theorized. There is the fact however, that technology will never truly leave us. The creation is always known to have a creator. The way that creation is used, is decided by anyone’s agenda.

In the real world, we have things we hide. The digital world, is only an extension of the real world. Like any real world grave robber, a digital one knows that people often take secrets to the grave. A digital grave robber knows, that grave robbing in the modern world, is just as profitable in the digital world, as it is in the real world.