Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

In most cases, deleting email really does delete the email beyond your ability to recover it. As always, however, there are exceptions.

Are email messages and attachments located on email accounts with Yahoo!, Gmail, and Hotmail really gone when you delete them?

It seems that such a direct and simple question would warrant a direct and simple answer.

In a practical sense, I suppose, the answer would be "Yes, as far as you're concerned, they're really gone".

But that little bit of qualification - "as far as you're concerned" - opens up a veritable Pandora's box of possibilities.

Whether those possibilities matter depends more on why you're asking than anything else.

Sometimes, delete isn't delete

If you're asking about an email that you simply deleted from your email account, it's possible that it's still there in two fairly common cases:

  • If the service uses something like a Recycle Bin - a folder that will eventually be emptied, but for the moment, it can allow you to change your mind. It's there specifically so you can recover something that you didn't mean to delete in the first place, or if you later, change your mind.

  • "... what happens when an email service that does keep backups gets served with a court order to produce the contents of your email box as of a certain date in the past?"

    If by delete, you mean archive. In Gmail specifically, you're actually encouraged to keep everything. Rather than deleting email, the default action is to use the Archive command - which does nothing more than remove the Inbox label. The message and its attachments remain in All Mail.

In those cases, the deleted mail can be recovered, often quite simply.

When delete means delete

If your email service doesn't use a Recycle Bin, or you empty it, or you actually tell Gmail to delete and not archive the email, then yes, the email is deleted and you cannot recover it, as far as you're concerned.

Usually.

Hotmail provides some support for actually retrieving emails that have been deleted from your account. A "recover deleted messages" link is typically present in the Deleted messages folder, promising to recover "as many as they can", which I've heard is around five days worth.

Past that date, and in other services, you're probably out of luck. Deleted email is gone, forever.

Or is it?

Email services backup, too

Like any good service provider - and for that matter, any conscientious computer users - mail services regularly backup the data stored on their computer's hard disks.

Presumably, this would include the mail stored on those services.

Those backups - assuming that they happen regularly - would be preserved for some length of time so as to be able to be restored in the case of some type of system failure. Hardware and software failure do happen and the only way to protect from data loss in cases like that is to have a backup.

Your messages might be on that backup.

If it exists.

Here's the problem: the email services do not make public their backup methods and policies. They might keep a backup for a day, a year, or a decade. They might not keep one at all, relying on massive redundancy in their infrastructure to protect them from hardware or other failures.

So your messages might be there or they might not be.

We have no way to know.

A risk that might concern some

The question then becomes this: what happens when an email service that does keep backups gets served with a court order to produce the contents of your email box as of a certain date in the past?

A date on which the email that you later deleted was in your mailbox.

Theoretically, the email service could retrieve that backup and extract from it the email that you had deleted.

There are many "ifs" to this scenario: if they have backups, if they keep the long enough, if the backup was taken while the email was in your mailbox, if the court decided that something was important enough to issue a warrant, and so on.

It's not a likely scenario and one that, quite honestly, most of us should never have to worry about.

But of course, perhaps a few should.

Two more practical places that it could be

Email, by definition, is a message sent from one person to another.

You might have deleted it, but what about the person you sent it to, or received it from?

So one place that the message could still remain is that other person.

And finally, if you downloaded that email or an attachment to your own computer - be it by using a desktop email program or simply downloading the attachment directly - there are various scenarios, including your own backups, that could make the message recoverable. The chances are typically slim, but it's another place to at least be aware of.

Article C5075 - February 10, 2012 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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6 Comments
Tom Richards
February 14, 2012 9:00 AM

Hello Leo,
Your article coming at this particular time is an amazing coincidence. I use a desktop email program, and just yesterday when searching for an item, I typed *eml in the search box. To my surprise I found that my "Deleted" emails were not truly deleted, only hidden away. It was like a trip back in time!

Neal
February 14, 2012 9:03 AM

Leo - I interpreted the question differently.

You assumed that the writer hopes to recover a message that had been deleted prematurely or accidentally. I assumed he or she wants assurance that no one, including law enforcement officials, can find an email that had been deleted from every obvious location (inbox, equivalent of recycle bin, etc.)

Regardless, your answer showed that everything we assume to be deleted can be retrieved by someone, at least for some period of time.

Robert Zeschke
February 14, 2012 1:48 PM

You only mentioned it briefly, but I think keeping your own mail backups is a simple and secure solution. I suggest using a mail client (My preference is Thunderbird) and then simply backup the Thunderbird folder containing your mail. I back up the folder 3-4 times a week and recovering individual messages or messages folders can be easily done. The Mozilla website has easy to find and simple instructions for locating the appropriate Thunderbird folder on your computer.

Doug Witmer
February 14, 2012 2:54 PM

All the "Free" internet services such as Yahoo, Google, and Facebook sell the personal information of their users. The biggest purchaser by far is the U.S. government. A Florida court case some time ago revealed that the typical charge for supplying information to the government was $40.00. For more information on this subject subscribe to any of the Sans Institute's security newsletters.

Disclaimer: I have no connection to the Sans Institute.

Katherine Bedard
March 16, 2012 3:05 PM

Leo,

How do I retrieve deleted email in microsoft outlook 2007 SP2 MSS? I know of an add on (I use it at work with 2003) whereby when the deleted folder is selected, I can use Tools, Recover Deleted Email and retrieve it. I can't seem to locate that in this version and I've deleted a bunch of email (very recently) that I need to retrieve! Thank you!

Ken
April 19, 2012 9:07 PM

Leo, My Mozilla THunderbird did an archive on my email. But there are no archive files of folders generated. 2000+ email messages have disappeared. Any ideas? I have checked the "usual" suspects: Folder like Junk, Deleted, al the storage folders in the directory, but no luck in find the mail. Thanks! Ken

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