Feb 06

Accidentally formatted hard disk recovery

So you had more than one hard disk plugged into your nice new Humax FreeSat set top box, one containing all your existing downloaded media and the other, an empty one intended for recording.

Upon formatting the drive intended for recording you subsequently discover that your other FAT32 disk with all your media on it, now has a nice new, empty NTFS partition on it too.  A real WTF moment that absolutely is not your fault.  It happens to the best of us.  It’s just happened to me.

It’s in these moments that having a can-do attitude is of the utmost importance.  Congratulations are in order, because Life has just presented a real challenge for you to overcome.

The likelihood is 95% of your friends will feign sympathy and tell you…

“there’s nothing you can do if you’ve re-formatted the drive”

the largely self-appointed “tech experts” (on the basis they have all-the-gear) will likely tell you…

“you’ve reformatted your FAT32 partition with NTFS so you’ve lost everything.”

…like you’d have stood a chance if you’d gone over it with a like-for-like file system format and they could have got all your data back for you (yeah, right).

Well, if you’ve been sensible enough to not make any writes to the drive, then I can tell you that you absolutely can recover all your data.  In fact, there’s no data to recover as it’s all still on the drive, so “recovery” will be instantaneous.   I’m here to tell you…

You need a computer running Linux and you need to install the testdisk package.

In a console window, run sudo testdisk

You may need to unmount the disk first using gparted but leave it plugged in.

In testdisk, you need to list partitions and it’ll display the new high performance file system NTFS partition and nothing else at this point.  There is an option to do a “deeper scan”.  This walks the cylinders looking for any evidence that a previous file system was here.  If you’ve not done any writes to the drive since it got reformatted with NTFS, then it’ll instantly find details of a previous FAT32 partition.  You can cancel the scan at this point as it’s found all it needs (see below)

What you need to do now is tell the disk that it’s this format you want on the primary partition, not the current NTFS one.  You can select it, and even list the files on it (P).

This can in someways be the most frustrating part, as you can see that the files and the index are there, but your file manager will still show an empty NTFS disk.  Now you need to switch the NTFS structured disk back over to FAT32 by writing the previously discovered FAT32 structure over the top of the primary partition.

You’ll receive a message along the lines of needing a reboot.  You just need to quit testdisk, and remove and re-add the hard disk (if it’s USB) or reboot if it’s an internal drive and re-run test disk after to see that the NTFS partition structure has been replaced with the FAT32 one that existed before.

Like before, you can list the files on the partition using testdisk.  Seeing as this partition is now the current live one, the files should also appear in your file manager.  In my case, I’m using the Nemo file manager on Linux Mint 18.1 Serena, Cinnamon 3.0 edition (and I can highly recommend it).

So there you go.  There are a few lessons to be learned here -for all of us, but like many things in life, things are not always as they seem.  Your computers file manager does not show you what data is on the disk – it is merely reading the contents of the current known good file allocation table from an address on the front of the disk that the partition is known to begin at.  Such file allocation tables will exist all over the disk from previous lives in between re-formatted for re-use.  When you re-format a disk, you’re just giving the file allocation table a fresh start with a new address but the old one will still exist somewhere and in multiple places on the disk.  The file allocation table is the index of disk contents that is read by the file manager in order to give you a representation of what it believes to be retrievable data on your disk.  The data itself can then be found starting at the addresses contained in that index for each file.  The data is still there on parts of the disk that have not yet been written over with replacement blocks of data, hence if you’ve not performed any writes, then all your data is all still there.  So if you want your data to be truly irrecoverable, then you must perform multiple random writes over the top of all cylinders using a tool like DBAN that will take hours to complete, or better, take an angle grinder to it.  Just remember to take a backup first.

So if you want your data to be truly irrecoverable, then you can perform multiple random writes over the top using a tool like DBAN, or better, take an angle grinder to it.

So the real proof that the data is indeed readable once again would be to open and play a movie file.  So as proof, here’s a little screenie of VLC Media Player playing Penelope Spheeris’ 1981 punk rock documentary “The Decline Of Western Civilization”.

Coincidentally, 1981 is quite a significant year for me, I was 6 years old and my parents had just bought me my first computer -a BBC Model B micro computer that had just been released.  I began teaching myself BASIC right away.




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