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Perhaps Osama bin Laden reformatted his computers before Seal Team 6 double tapped.
As Navy Seal Team 6 slid down the ropes of the two Blackhawk choppers hovering above a concrete compound in the middle of the scorching hot Pakistani desert, Osama bin Laden was perched in front of a glowing computer monitor in a damp, dark cavern. Characters flashed before his eyes in the Windows command prompt as the ruthless terrorist typed out the final computer command he’d ever issue:
“A:\> format c:”
Of course, those familiar with the “format” command, which is supposed to wipe a hard drive, would know that his Windows XP machine inquired:
“WARNING, ALL DATA ON NON-REMOVABLE DISK
DRIVE C: WILL BE LOST!
Proceed with Format (Y/N)?
Or at least so goes the fictional vision of how it all might have went down in the mind of a computer geek on an early May night.
Strangely enough, that same nightmare is recurring for many average computer users: the dreaded hard drive wipe, which, when done either intentionally or unintentionally erases all of the data stored on your personal box.
According to multiple news reports from national news organizations, the Seals that got Bin Laden also nabbed a bunch of computers, hard drives and thumb drives from the Islamic extremist’s digs.
But that also begs a nagging question that tends to come up often among average computer users. Can I unintentionally (or intentionally) erase all the data off of a data-storing device like a PC or laptop hard drive or a personal storage thumb drive or even a cell phone?
Even if I could begin to believe Osama bin Laden had any sort of l33t (or “elite” as hackers have been known to refer to themselves) computer skillz, such that he would know to use Window’s famed “format” command to wipe his disks, one does wonder what it is that any computer analysts at the Pentagon could find on such a device.
Here are a few choose-your-own-adventure scenarios that might have happened in Bin Laden’s final moments.
They will also give you a good idea about what kinds of data you might be able to recover or permanently delete on your own drives, depending on your needs.
Scenario 1: Uh, What’s the “format” command?
Even if he didn’t grow up in one of the most impoverished, and hence computer-deprived, areas of the world, let’s be honest about something: Bin Laden was 54-years-old. Although the average use-case of a 50-plus-year-old computer operator is somewhat limited, you have to imagine Bin Laden’s was especially limited.
Hence, there’s a good chance that Bin Laden wouldn’t know much about reformatting (a typically intentional computer command that can be run upon a hard drive to completely erase its data) a hard drive.
At the same time, that age group of computer user typically uses common computer programs, such as Microsoft’s Office suite, or perhaps the accounting program QuickBooks, as well as a common web application like Microsoft Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox, to do much of what they do on a daily basis.
If Bin Laden didn’t have a contingency plan for his computer’s data, it would likely be easily accessible in commonly used file formats, likely giving the Seals a gold-mine of easily accessible data.
It would be like plugging Bin Laden's hard drive right into your own computer. Want to check in on his Outlook schedule? You could import the data file from the drive just like copying-and-pasting a file from one folder to another and see what the terrorist’s daily plans were.
Oh, look! Here's a charming entry:
May 2, 2011: Have coffee, feed dog, DEATH TO INFADELS!
Scenario 2: The Dude Knew His Way Around DOS
In the unlikely scenario that Bin Laden knew a bit beyond how to get through a killer game of Microsoft Hearts, there is the chance that he reformatted all of his drives in the time period long before the Seals arrived.
I say that it would have had to have been a LONG period of time before the party started, as completely reformatting a drive, a process which effectively sets every “1” to a “0” on an entire hard drive (the exact details of that process are quite sophisticated), would take hours in the least, especially for a large batch of drives.
Were he to have done so, he might have moved the information slightly further out of the grasp of computer forensic scientists, but not by much. Even if a hard drive has been reformatted, some of or most of its data can be recovered using sophisticated techniques that the look for the partial “1” or “0” magnetic value of a drive’s data.
That tid-bit would also explain why if you ever “lose” all the data off of one of your own hard drives you can still recover the data with the help of an expert who can use special programs to read the partial values of your drive’s bits. On the other hand, if you mean to cover up your excessive piracy of Will and Grace episodes you’ll need more than a simple reformat to meet your needs.
Scenario 3: HaXor is Bin Laden’s Other Middle Name
Had Bin Laden, for some unintelligibly ridiculous reason, known about his assailants' plans days--perhaps weeks--in advance, he might have used an uber-l33t method of erasing his drives, sometimes referred to as disk wiping or data dumping.
Picture a hard drive as a continuous series of zeroes and ones. If in the process mentioned in “Scenario 2” some data can be recovered after a disk has been reformatted, a disk wipe totally scrambles even the “ghost” data left in the form of weak magnetic forces left on a previously formatted disk. It does so by using a crazy, mathematically convoluted method of overwriting the data on the disk, essentially encrypting even the ghost of data that was once on your disk.
So, if Bin Laden had a computer expert working at his side, who would have at some point taught him some process by which Bin Laden could erase all of the data on his disks, he might have had a chance of resisting the Seals’ computing prowess.
Problem is that the advanced algorithms that would have had to be run upon the drives to truly scramble their brains would have taken long, long periods of time, much more than an average reformat. To do so for dozens of disks would have taken an enormous amount of time.
Scenario 4: If I Had a Hammer
Bin Laden wouldn’t have had to have been a young Bill Gates to have known that taking a blunt object to a computer is one of the swiftest ways to knock its lights out. Perhaps Bin Laden simply rifled off several AK47 rounds into the blasted computers before the Seals pumped off a few rounds of their own.
It’s true that taking a hammer to a hard drive will surely end its life in swift order, as hard drives are sensitive instruments that make millions of calculations on a microscopic scale in seconds.
But even then, according to experts, there are in fact methods of recovering data on a smashed disk.
Scenario 5: Hammer and Cheese
In the unimaginably minute chance, on the order of a particle from the Large Hadron Collider causing a catastrophic black hole in Earth’s space, that Bin Laden algorithmically wiped all of his disks, and then ALSO smashed them with a healthy dose of steel, perhaps he may escape the guiles of the CIA’s best computer scientist.
Oh! Well. Now we’ll never know if Bin Laden’s favorite iTunes playlist is Christina Aguilera or Britney Spears.
“Hard Drives Retrieved From Osama House, Photos Received By White House,” Wall Street Journal
May 3, 2011 1:14 p.m. http://online.wsj.com/article/BT-CO-20110503-713262.html
“How to Completely Erase a Hard Disk Drive,” Webopedia