Prompted by the Jones case: Is all digital data really saved and retrievable? The mind boggles

The whole stupid (and useful!) debacle with Alex Jones’s phone messages and another local case of ISP records got me wondering -

Is everything everyone in the world does on the internet/digitally via phone or computer really saved somewhere? The thought of amount of storage necessary absolutely fries my brain.


I know I’m oversimplifying this, I can’t really articulate my thoughts here, mostly because I don’t really have a good grasp of how all this works. In Jones’s case I assume he was too stupid and/or arrogant to actually delete stuff off his phone (though messages do drop off I thought). But if someone maybe discussed or researched a plan to embezzle from their job, would that info be stored somewhere forever? If suspicions arose within a few months I can see how it might be retrievable, but after years? I can’t imagine how that could/would work.

Digital Storage For Dummies, please?

The NSA alone has billions of dollars worth of multiple data centres that can store and process multiple zettabytes of data. They also have the means of collecting this data (with the cooperation of major telecommunications companies such as AT&T).

In other words, with an appropriate budget, storage of digital data is not an insurmountable problem, nor are the mainframes and supercomputers needed to analyse such data. There are different approaches to process “big data” in order to look for suspicious activity, but, certainly, if you have a specific name then you (i.e. the computer) can go through all of their data, which in turn will reveal everyone they have been associating or communicating with, etc.

Zettabytes. New word for me!

I don’t know the technical details of Alex Jones’ phone data. All I heard was that his lawyers inadvertently provided all the data to the plaintiff’s lawyers.

I don’t think it’s so much that you delete data and it’s still stored somewhere else. On any storage medium, for efficiency when you delete data, it is not physically deleted from the medium. It is simply marked as being deleted so the OS now won’t show it to you, and knows that it can use that same space to store new data. Some it doesn’t get used again and that “deleted” data can be retrieved. I understand that government agencies will zillions of dollars can even retrieve some data after it’s been overwritten, but can’t attest to it.

In other cases, if the data has been transmitted in any way, some server someplace has almost certainly made a backup of the data before you delete it. They say that once data reaches the Internet it’s there forever. I think a lot of these long-term backups are still done with tape. So it could be a massive amount of data, although retrieving from tape backups is not trivial because you have to know where to retrieve it from–it’s much more time-consuming to scan sequential access media for data than disks.

Am I on the right track for what you are asking?

I thought I read somewhere in the news that they had a full dump of his phone including texts going back two years. Which implies your first thought was correct, he simply bought the phone with the biggest amount of storage and never deleted anything. After all, he’s pulling in somewhere about - depending on the news - $50M to $150M every year, i assume the logic was “I’m filthy rich” (literally true) “so buy the biggest, most expensive phone I can each year and simply transfer everything over.” Data management probably wasn’t his strong suit. Whereas, exceeding phone data capacity probably wasn’t a problem considering the most expensive phones are in the range of 512GB to 1TB. Plenty of room for Animal Crossing or Tinder too.

More interesting to me would be whether he did anything similar with his email - would he keep say, 6 months of data on his phone or even more? “100 Gigabytes of data” makes me think he had plenty of attachments to emails - business reports, court documents, radio scripts, etc.

I too wonder if this was simply a “dump” of his data (appropriate word) or whether this was the result of applying forensic recovery tools for erased data when a court-ordered discovery was required? (Technically, this memory technology has a limited number of times a bit can be flipped, so part of memory management on such devices is to “spread the data around” so one part of the memory is not overused - implying that old data is still there simply marked as “erased” until the device has used all the memory.)

I wonder if perhaps this was deliberately passive-aggressive? Was there, say, a junior lawyer on staff sufficiently revulsed by Jones that they decided to “make a mistake” with the data or deliberately misinterpret instructions?

This is what I don’t understand about the Secret Service and DHS phones and missing data. Did they not have a standard backup regimen for each phone? Was that not mandatory under government records requirements? That over and above the need to migrate some important stuff (address book contacts, calendar, etc.). The rest of the world has been migrating phones at least every 2 or 3 years now for a decade or more - it’s not rocket science or brain surgery. The guy working the kiosk at the mall can show you how to do it.

I guess I was more thinking of the not-creepy-conspiracy-theorist people and what they do.

***Mike Modest from Middle Nowhere, MN decides he’s tired of living on a barely middle class income and wants to make his own money. He starts looking around on the internet to see if he could literally manufacture his own money, and what that would entail. He’s pushing 50 yrs old, has always paid his taxes and hasn’t had so much as a speeding ticket or a late card payment in 25 years.

He’s not going to be high on the NSA list.

He decides he’s going to give it a go, realizes there’s probably a bad trail on his devices, and deletes anything and everything he can.

If, somewhere down the line, he gets nabbed on a suspicion of counterfeiting but he’s smart enough to hide anything tangible, can his past search history be dug up and used as proof against him?

***This is not remotely factual or plausible, I realize that. It’s by way of example only, to illustrate a nobody dipping a toe into crime via the interwebs, and the likelihood of his history being found.

I guess I just have no concept of what is and isn’t possible digitally, and my book-centric mind utterly cannot grasp how the ever increasing internet life of billions of humans can be stored indefinitely.

I’m old. This is hard! :stuck_out_tongue:

Then consider how many 2k texts is in one zettabyte!

How much of that is spam?

Not as much of it as dick pics!

They want to show off the results of the spam.

The answer as always, is “it depends”.

Your phones store text messages as long as you tell them to, or as long as you have storage space to do so. Emails are similar, except that often they’re stored on a remote server somewhere, and not on your phone. And most people keep their emails forever.

Phones and computers log and store all sorts of other stuff- what websites you visited, what you downloaded, what you did while there, etc… Again, all this is usually configurable, but very few people actually configure it. Phone companies/ISPs log another whole set of data - where you were (as identified by the cell tower), what you were doing, what IP you were coming from, etc…

So if they can get a subpoena of the phone, they can take an exact, bit-for-bit digital copy of it, and at that point, they have everything on his phone that he did at that moment in time. I’m not sure how it works with say… Gmail, and clients set to automatically log in. There may be another level of legal requesting needed to go through that.

But some text I sent five years ago on a different phone? I’m pretty sure that’s not going to be stored by my phone company or ISP, and if someone has it, it’s the NSA or some foreign intelligence service.

Now that everything is defaulting to being ‘in the cloud’ it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to control one’s own data and content, and know when it’s truly deleted, not just locally.

I remember reading that after ‘The Fappening’ (a big online hacker release of personal nude photos of several actors a few years back) some of the targeted actors were surprised because they thought they had deleted the photos awhile back. But no, they had just deleted the pics on their phone. They were still floating around in the cloud, just waiting for hackers to find them.

That’s what I thought.

So, there’s a series of texts I received/sent over two years ago. In the meantime, I’ve bought a new phone of the same brand and still have the same number. Still, these texts are gone forever, right ?

They are not gone, but that does not mean that the NSA or your ISP are going to send you copies just because you ask for them.

I sort of doubt your ISP is going to have a copy either.

So, for all practical purposes, there’s no way I can retrieve them.

From five years ago? Probably not.

If it’s literally 100 gigabytes, the vast majority of that must be “media”: Audio, video, and/or pictures. Gigabytes are an impossible amount of text data (which includes business reports, documents, and scripts) for a single person to be involved with.

It is mandatory. Just because something is required to be done, doesn’t mean it actually is.

Two and a half years. Same difference probably, but thanks.

Just checked my iPhone, where I have made no special effort to scrub - Email defaults to “keep the last month” the maximum option; email downloaded from the server into a cache stays around for a month, that’s the max available. You can, however, search further back I believe, and it will download it.

Messages, OTOH, the default is “keep forever”. I don’t know if they migrate when you move your data to a new phone, but I don’t see why not. The process with iPhone is to do a full backup, then reload it to the new phone. Presumably that keeps all non-erased content, as well as existing apps and credentials.

As to what is recoverable from direct dump of the erased data on a phone - not sure; keep in mind Apple touts that their phone memory is encrypted, so without good hacking tools, a dump of raw memory may not reveal much. (Android? Don’t know. Less secure?)

Yes, very true. A picture is worth a thousand words, or a million bytes. I wonder if Jones was in the habit of photographing documents he ran across. I don’t see him as the type to fill his phone with holiday pics, and I hope he did his media stuff with professional equipment. Possibly he kept snippets of videos on his phone to review. Assorted apps like Twitter, Instagram, Tik-Tok and web browsing presumably accumulate a decent amount of cache data and keep logs. All this is also interesting detail for a forensic audit. (I also have about 16GB of music on my phone).

The problem obviously is a lot of this data accumulation is not immediately obvious to the average user. But… It’s there for the experts.

Also occurs to me - there’s no easy way that I know (haven’t checked) to say “delete my conversations with X older than 6 months” other than going through and deleting them 1 by 1 or changing the global option? So the default is -they stay.