Thursday, December 10, 2009

Securely delete files in Windows

The only way to ensure that deleted files, as well as files that you encrypt with EFS, are safe from recovery is to use a secure delete application. Secure delete applications overwrite a deleted file's on-disk data using techiques that are shown to make disk data unrecoverable, even using recovery technology that can read patterns in magnetic media that reveal weakly deleted files. SDelete (Secure Delete) is such an application.

You can use SDelete both to securely delete existing files, as well as to securely erase any file data that exists in the unallocated portions of a disk (including files that you have already deleted or encrypted). SDelete implements the Department of Defense clearing and sanitizing standard DOD 5220.22-M, to give you confidence that once deleted with SDelete, your file data is gone forever. Note that SDelete securely deletes file data, but not file names located in free disk space.

Using SDelete
SDelete is a command line utility that takes a number of options. In any given use, it allows you to delete one or more files and/or directories, or to cleanse the free space on a logical disk. SDelete accepts wild card characters as part of the directory or file specifier.

Usage: sdelete [-p passes] [-s] [-q]
sdelete [-p passes] [-z|-c] [drive letter]

Zero free space (good for virtual disk optimization).
-p passes
Specifies number of overwrite passes.
Recurse subdirectories.
Don't print errors (quiet).
Cleanse free space.

How SDelete Works

Securely deleting a file that has no special attributes is relatively straight-forward: the secure delete program simply overwrites the file with the secure delete pattern. What is more tricky is securely deleting Windows NT/2K compressed, encrypted and sparse files, and securely cleansing disk free spaces.

Compressed, encrypted and sparse are managed by NTFS in 16-cluster blocks. If a program writes to an existing portion of such a file NTFS allocates new space on the disk to store the new data and after the new data has been written, deallocates the clusters previously occupied by the file. NTFS takes this conservative approach for reasons related to data integrity, and in the case of compressed and sparse files, in case a new allocation is larger than what exists (the new compressed data is bigger than the old compressed data). Thus, overwriting such a file will not succeed in deleting the file's contents from the disk.

To handle these types of files SDelete relies on the defragmentation API. Using the defragmentation API, SDelete can determine precisely which clusters on a disk are occupied by data belonging to compressed, sparse and encrypted files. Once SDelete knows which clusters contain the file's data, it can open the disk for raw access and overwrite those clusters.

Cleaning free space presents another challenge. Since FAT and NTFS provide no means for an application to directly address free space, SDelete has one of two options. The first is that it can, like it does for compressed, sparse and encrypted files, open the disk for raw access and overwrite the free space. This approach suffers from a big problem: even if SDelete were coded to be fully capable of calculating the free space portions of NTFS and FAT drives (something that's not trivial), it would run the risk of collision with active file operations taking place on the system. For example, say SDelete determines that a cluster is free, and just at that moment the file system driver (FAT, NTFS) decides to allocate the cluster for a file that another application is modifying. The file system driver writes the new data to the cluster, and then SDelete comes along and overwrites the freshly written data: the file's new data is gone. The problem is even worse if the cluster is allocated for file system metadata since SDelete will corrupt the file system's on-disk structures.
The second approach, and the one SDelete takes, is to indirectly overwrite free space. First, SDelete allocates the largest file it can. SDelete does this using non-cached file I/O so that the contents of the NT file system cache will not be thrown out and replaced with useless data associated with SDelete's space-hogging file. Because non-cached file I/O must be sector (512-byte) aligned, there might be some left over space that isn't allocated for the SDelete file even when SDelete cannot further grow the file. To grab any remaining space SDelete next allocates the largest cached file it can. For both of these files SDelete performs a secure overwrite, ensuring that all the disk space that was previously free becomes securely cleansed.

On NTFS drives SDelete's job isn't necessarily through after it allocates and overwrites the two files. SDelete must also fill any existing free portions of the NTFS MFT (Master File Table) with files that fit within an MFT record. An MFT record is typically 1KB in size, and every file or directory on a disk requires at least one MFT record. Small files are stored entirely within their MFT record, while files that don't fit within a record are allocated clusters outside the MFT. All SDelete has to do to take care of the free MFT space is allocate the largest file it can - when the file occupies all the available space in an MFT Record NTFS will prevent the file from getting larger, since there are no free clusters left on the disk (they are being held by the two files SDelete previously allocated). SDelete then repeats the process. When SDelete can no longer even create a new file, it knows that all the previously free records in the MFT have been completely filled with securely overwritten files.

To overwrite file names of a file that you delete, SDelete renames the file 26 times, each time replacing each character of the file's name with a successive alphabetic character. For instance, the first rename of "foo.txt" would be to "AAA.AAA".

The reason that SDelete does not securely delete file names when cleaning disk free space is that deleting them would require direct manipulation of directory structures. Directory structures can have free space containing deleted file names, but the free directory space is not available for allocation to other files. Hence, SDelete has no way of allocating this free space so that it can securely overwrite it.

Download SDelete
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