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Most individuals wouldn't be able to access emails that you've deleted... but that doesn't mean that someone at the ISP wouldn't be able to find the message.

I'm a very casual user of email. I have two free accounts: one on Yahoo and one on Gmail. I have 13-character passwords but even so, I can't be assured that my account won't be hacked or that emails won't be otherwise read or distributed. My question is if someone hacks my email account, can they somehow obtain the emails that I supposedly permanently deleted by emptying the trash container. In other words, am I doing myself any good by keeping my inbox and my trash empty? Thank you.

Emptying the trash is a good approach to making sure that messages that you've deleted stay that way. Now, there is an exception to this statement (and I'll explain in a moment), but the bottom line is that when you empty the trash, the files are essentially no longer recoverable to you.

Trashing your email: Gone for good

If you click Empty Trash and then try to recover an email message, you couldn't get your message back. For that matter, neither could a hacker.

The guy at the datacenter who can read your email

And a lot of people do empty their trash frequently. In fact, many desktop-based email programs offer you the option of automatically emptying the trash when you close out of the program. I'm not aware of any similar functionality in the web-based email world like Yahoo and Gmail, but you get the idea. It's something that people do think about and often do.

Now, let me explain that exception. The scenario that you're describing in your question is what I'd consider hacking. Someone gains access to your emails without your permission. In this case, you're absolutely right. Deleting your messages protects the information in those messages.

Or is it really gone for good?

But I want to be clear. For someone looking for a way to expunge emails from their records completely, simply deleting your messages does nothing.

Remember that your ISP (in your case, Yahoo and Gmail) is backing up their servers. They're recording things; they're keeping things for an indeterminate amount of time. We don't know how long (Yahoo and Gmail won't say).

While an individual wouldn't be able to access the email that used to be in your trash before you deleted it, that doesn't mean that someone at the ISP wouldn't be able to find the message. They may be able to access it from a backup taken before you deleted it or other resources that we don't know about or don't understand.

Now, it's not necessarily even a bad player that would do that. It's not like there's a rogue employee, although that happens occasionally. But let's say that an email may be of interest to law enforcement or the legal system. ISPs are often compelled to respond to court orders to retrieve data.

How deep will an ISP go for data?

How often do ISPs respond to the court orders? I honestly don't know. But the point is that theoretically, an ISP could recover data that had been removed from your trash.

It's certainly not something they're going to do lightly. If you asked them to recover one lost message, an ISP is more likely to tell you the data is gone rather than go through their backups. But if what you're concerned about has any legal, political, or other kinds of overtones, it is possible that they may be able to recover a deleted email message.

Article C6401 - April 18, 2013 « »

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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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4 Comments
Mike
April 18, 2013 1:34 PM

I don't like people frantically deleting everything they even think they don't need anymore, because you never know when you want to look at it one more time. I don't say you can't delete email, just that since that deletion is permanent for all intents and purposes, you should be careful with it. Especially Gmail these days has ample space, so there's really no need to delete anything in my opinion. I'm not familiar with Yahoo, but I imagine they too will give you space for quite a few messages.
So just be careful, and use labels or folders to stow away messages you don't want cluttering your inbox, rather than just destroying everything. Unless of course you have something to hide, but then maybe you should just use a longer password, or get your own domain and mail server that you control (sort of: if you rent it from some hosting company, they will still be backing it up).

Alex Dow
April 23, 2013 11:17 AM

AND if you did have your own Domain and Mail Server, would you NOT follow "Good Practice" and back it up?

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I suggest that one would expect ISPs to retain Back-ups including "deleted" files etc, for the minimum required in their "home" legal regime.

For example, in Scotland, physical Receipts for Paid Bills should be retained for at least 5 years, to provide proof of that payment. For some items it is 6 years.

In England & Wales, it is 6 years.

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Technically, does "deletion" on such servers follow the same or similar pattern to PC HDDs, where a "$" sign is added to the file name, to indicate it may be over-written when disk space is required, rather than "eradication" of one sort or another?

There's no standard or assumption to be made on this. (And PC's do NOT use the "$" method you mentioned.)
Leo
23-Apr-2013

Noggin
May 10, 2013 10:38 AM

May seem a silly question but where can one get full but easy to understand basic instructions on how to back-up. Lacking this knowledge is possibly the reason why many people, as you have remarked elswhere on your website, do not back-up?

I have several articles on the site on backing up, including a step by step video series on doing so with Macrium Reflect. Not to mention the Windows 7 Backing Up book I have available. I'll start you here, at the page that lists most all: Maintenance and Backup
Leo
10-May-2013

connie
May 10, 2013 12:28 PM

@ Noggin,
Ask and you shall receive. Here is a link to Leo's step by step backup articles.
How to Backup

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