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I Have Your Deleted Files and Photos and Passwords – Memory Card Edition

Posted in Computers by Joe Colburn on the August 19th, 2017

“You’re going to delete that, right?”

If you’ve ever said that after someone who took a video or photo of you that you’d prefer didn’t leave that camera, you probably felt comfort in watching them delete it in front of you. But what if it wasn’t really gone?

I’ve often felt a little paranoid when I’ve decided to keep a broken phone or buy a used hard drive ro replace one in a laptop I’m selling. I have long held a strict policy of not letting anything that stores files leave my possession when I’m done with it for fear that someone could recover files that could lead to anything from mild embarrassment to identity theft. I may be paranoid, but with good reason.

I bought some SD cards

This week, I bought two auctioned lots of formatted memory cards, but what I found may surprise you. Keep in mind that these were specifically listed as “formatted”, meaning that someone went trough the effort of trying to wipe all the data to protect the privacy of the previous owners, but failed to do it in a secure way. More on that in a minute. First, here’s a breakdown of what I bought:

  • 3 Sony Memory Sticks (about 4.5 GB)
  • 8 SD cards (about 17 GB)
  • 7 MicroSD cards (about 50 GB)

In total, I went through about 70 GB of recovered files in a day.

Thousands of private files uncovered

The goal of this experiment was to figure out what types of files I could uncover from all of these cards, but more specifically, I wanted to know if it was possible to get enough off a card to compromise someone’s online account or steal their identity. After all, hackers don’t care much about that photo of you in your underwear. They want something that can generate a profit. In all, I recovered over 15,000 files. Most of the files were photos with video and audio files making up a large portion of the remainder. In the minority were PDFs, XML, DOC, and system files. Of all these, here’s essentially what was uncovered.

  • thousands of photos
  • hundreds of videos
  • medical documents
  • personal information
  • plenty of selfies
  • strange screenshots
  • lots of pet photos!
  • photos of documents, lists, and notes

I started with the PDFs and XML, but came up empty-handed with a couple menus, some instructions, and a couple software configuration files. Next, I skimmed the photos for anything that included a computer screen in the background, hand-written notes, or printed materials. Mostly, I found myself sifting through tons of blurry photos and pictures of pets, family events, and what looks like items people were photographing to sell, but I did land on a few interesting items.

On one SD card, I found photos of medical records for a guy I’ll call “Phil” (I changed the name). Those photos included personal medical details and his home address. On the same card were plenty of photos of him and a girl who I imagined must be his girlfriend alongside screenshots from dating applications like Zoosk. There was enough on the card for me to find him on Facebook in under a minute and confirm that they’re still together. It’s creepy how much you can learn about a person with only an old formatted SD card as a starting point.

On another card, a younger gentleman captured a snapshot of the email on his computer that contained his username, password, and the URL to log into a specific site.

Login Details

A third card included hundreds of photos that mostly just showed a college girl and her friends, her dog and the usual cellphone photo subjects. Looking closely at computer screens and other details in the photos, however, it wasn’t hard to determine her full name, dorm room number classes studied, place of employment, and more.

Less interesting were reminders, shopping lists, a school paper, and one recipe that looked worth trying.

How I recovered deleted files with an undelete program

To understand how files are recovered, it helps to first know a little bit about how they’re stored and deleted. When a file is stored, it’s data is stored in one area of your drive and a file pointer points to the first block of that data. When you click a file to open it, your computer simply references that first block and loads that file. When a file is “deleted”, your computer is really just removing the pointer to that file’s data and marking that space as free, but the data remains in tact. A standard “format” operation on a drive or card just removes all the file pointers, making all the space available for writing.

So-called “undelete” programs take advantage of this by scanning the storage space for any blocks of data that do not have file pointers. Such a program will then collect that data to it’s final block, give it a new file name, and store it in your recovery location, which should always be another storage device. Any parts of the data that were overwritten will be lost, so if you have something to recover, the best idea is to disconnect that drive and use recovery software on another computer to save your lost data.

The program I’ve had for years and which I used for this project is called LSoft Active@ Undelete Professional which currently costs about $45, but the standard version is only 20 bucks. There are other programs out there, but I can’t speak to their usefulness.

How to protect your files

If you’re like me, you’ll just never let that storage media out of your possession, but most people would prefer to sell or donate old hardware or drives that still work. So how to you keep your data safe from prying eyes? The key is to overwrite the data. When you overwrite the data, it makes it much harder for someone to recover it if at all. Your success at eliminating data may depend on the method you use. For example, simply deleting files or formatting the drive will leave your data wide open to anyone who knows how to get it back, but overwriting your data with something less private will make it much harder and using the Department of Defense 5220.22-M method (described more plainly here) will make data recovery virtually impossible.

I learned some things along the way

When I decided to conduct this experiment, I had a fairly narrow goal to see if I could find what a hacker would consider a successful haul of personalized information. Admittedly, I chose memory cards to keep the project cheap, allowing me to get storage media from many people affordably. I had not considered the types of information different devices might yield.

In my case, I procured a mix of SD, MicroSD, and Sony Memory Stick cards. Sony’s cards were popular for gaming and photography. SD Cards are often found in cameras and MicroSD cards have a variety of uses, including cell phone storage, small cameras, web/security cameras, etc. With this in mind, it’s not too surprising that the bulk of recovered files were photos.

This lends itself to the idea that a hacker could narrow his or her search by carefully selecting the storage device to sift through. If high-resolution photos were the goal then purchasing used cards that are specifically designed for high-speed storage would be ideal. In fact, the faster the write time, the more likely that card was purchased by its previous owner for video applications. If, on the other hand, a hacker wanted to get his or her hands on financial documents, spreadsheets or browser cookies and cache, desktop and laptop drives would be ideal. A hacker could even go so far as to target drives known to have been used widely in consumer computers to increase the probability of loosely-secured personal data, or server hard drives in search of corporate bounty.

What’s next

Currently, I’m shopping hard drive auctions and will be looking at other items that store information in internal memory for my next experiment. I’ll post on that soon, but in the meantime, be sure to truly wipe any storage media before sending it back out into the world.

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Turn a Tesla Into a Pokémon Go Machine

Posted in Automotive,Gaming,Just Cool by Joe Colburn on the August 1st, 2016

What happens when you pair up the most buzz-worthy car with the most viral game? You get a giant Pokémon Go car that looks awesome and will help you catch them all.

Pokémon  Go Tesla

Pokémon Go Tesla

A guy named Jeff, an editor for Pink Java Media enjoys playing Pokémon Go so much that he threw a little caution to the wind and poked around with his Tesla until he got it to install the popular game, making the most creative use I’ve seen out of the Tesla’s 14 inch display with GPS and a camera built in. “It’s not perfect,” Jeff said. “The Tesla’s display cuts off some of the game; I haven’t been able to fix that.” Probably more challenging is that the built-in camera the Tesla provides is a back-up camera, intended for assisting with, well, backing up. This, of course, means that Jeff must put the car in reverse in order to catch Pokémon.

How Did He Do It?
According to Pink Java, Jeff completed this feat with “a little bit of luck, some old-fashioned ingenuity, and an ethernet cable”, but that’s all the detail provided. I guess we’ll have to wait for him to document the process and just catch Pokémon with our phones like regular folk.

What is Pokémon Go?
Pink Java does a great job of summarising the game in their own article about Jeff’s adventure:

Pokemon GO is a smartphone game in which players chase and capture virtual creatures using geolocation. The phone’s camera makes it seem like these fanciful beasts are right there with the player in the real world, with different creatures appearing in different places.

When asked what Jeff had in mind next for his Tesla, he responded, “Tinder,” he said with a smile. “Going to see if I can swipe right with my turn signal.” I’d like to see how that works out. What would you like to see Jeff hack into his Tesla?

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Black+Decker SMARTECH Cordless Lithium Hand Vacuum Review

Posted in reviews by Joe Colburn on the July 3rd, 2016

My wife and I have been mulling over the idea of a new vacuum recently, so I was intrigued when Black+Decker sent out their SMARTECH hand vacuum (model number HHVJ320BMF26) for me to review.

What is SMARTECH?
Before I get into my own experience with this vacuum, I want to get into what the “SMARTECH” in this product’s name refers to. In fact, Black+Decker has a whole line of vacuums that share this feature set. Here’s how their site describes SMARTECH:

SMARTECH™ BATTERYSENSE™ AUTOSENSE™ + FILTERSENSE™ features help you clean smarter, not harder.

    BATTERYSENSE shows you how much battery remains, so you know how much longer you can clean before you need to recharge.
    FILTERSENSE alerts you when it’s time to clean the filter so you continue to get maximum performance.
    AUTOSENSE helps you power through your cleaning by automatically adjusting suction from bare floors to thick carpet.
    POWERBOOST gives you added power with the push of a button.

In reality, I’ve come to expect the benefits of battery and filter notifications in any newer products where they would be applicable. I understand that other products may not offer this, so I’m at least appreciative that they exist here. On the other hand, AUTOSENSE and POWERBOOST are the pleasant surprises here, with AUTOSENSE being the headliner. Vacuuming can be such a mundane chore that it can be easy to forget to turn off POWERBOOST when you don’t need it. This can drain the battery faster than necessary and it becomes evident by looking at the BATTERYSENSE indicator. At nearly full charge, all three battery indicator lights are lit with POWERBOOST off. Turn it on and only two battery indicator lights are lit.

With all that said, I’m not sure AUTOSENSE works on – or is designed for – the handheld vacuum and may be more of a feature for the 2-in-1 vacuums that have a stick vacuum add-on. Whether this is the case or not, I was unable to experience AUTOSENSE during my testing.

Of these features, if I could change one thing, it would be the BATTERYSENSE indication lights. Some form of indication of minutes of use remaining would be far more useful to me.

Does it Suck
The lithium battery provides decent suction for typical handheld vacuum tasks like picking up small dirt and debris. There is a noticeable difference with POWERBOOST on and this was very handy when it came to removing cat hair from a cloth couch cover. While testing this, I was able to make a clear X on the couch cover distinguishing the vacuumed X from the untouched portion. I have four cats, which put this product to the test. On carpeted stairs, I had less success, requiring several passes to get all the cat hair up. All other tests with small debris were successful as I had expected them to be.

Pros and Cons
As mentioned above, I had limited success removing lots of cat hair from carpeted stairs and I imagine a more useful indicator of how long I can expect to run the vacuum on the remaining battery. Additionally, I found the air output to have inconvenient placement. The air sucked into the vacuum makes its way through the filters and then back out the bottom of the vacuum. While using it on the floor, air began to push around debris I had not yet vacuumed. Now that I’m aware of this I can be conscious about how I position the vacuum, but it would be better if I didn’t have to think about it.

There are a number of things I like about this little machine, as well. At just over 2 pounds, it’s light without compromising much in the way of power or features. The battery indicator, while not perfect, does differentiate between remaining usage expectations for normal use versus POWERBOOST. The extendable crevice tool helps with getting into tight spaces, but it also helps reach higher places and requires less bending over when cleaning up small messes quickly from the floor. Having only about 15 minutes of run time, the wall-mountable charging cradle can be a big plus. As long as you return it to its cradle when you’re done, it should always be ready for use. The debris compartment is pretty small, but it’s also bagless and very easy to clean by just pressing the release button, pulling out the filter, and then dumping the contents of the compartment into the trash.

Specifications
AIR WATTS 22 Watts
CAPACITY 16.9 oz.
REPLACEMENT FILTERS VBF10
WEIGHT 2.13 lbs

Conclusions
Many companies (including Black+Decker) offer handheld vacuums that are cheaper, but they also have fewer features or may not work as well. This vacuum retails for about $89.99 and is worth the price. It feels comfortable but sturdy and shows promise of working well for a long time, which is worth spending a little more for. My gripes are small and few and I would easily recommend this to anyone shopping for a handheld.

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