Computer expert: Recovering Justin Harris' data may be tough - WBRC FOX6 News - Birmingham, AL

Computer expert: Recovering Justin Harris' data may be a challenge


Cobb County investigators want to know what is on the computers of Justin Ross Harris, accused of leaving his 22-month-old son in a sweltering car to die.

They said Harris searched online to find out how long a child could last in such brutal conditions.

Investigators are searching Harris's hard drives, external drives and smart phones to see where he has been online and what he has stored on his computer.

Ramnath Chellappa, an associate professor of Information Systems and Operations Management at Emory's Goizuetta Business School, said investigators may have a tough time recovering anything from a computer if a suspect covers his or her tracks.

"There are situations where it becomes impossible to actually extract anything," Chellappa said.

Degaussing a hard drive, running it over a magnetized surface, can render information incomprehensible.

"In most of those cases the disk is not reusable," Chellappa said.

Also, free software programs like Erasure can scramble a drive.

"It constantly keeps writing new stuff on top of the old stuff so there comes a point where you cannot go back to something that was overwritten six or seven times," Chellappa said.

If files are simply dumped into the computer's recycle bin, however, investigators can easily recover data even when the bin is emptied.

"A simple delete process does not delete anything from a hard drive." Chellappa said, noting that programs like Recuva, also free, can recover files that are merely deleted.

"You don't need to be that sophisticated anymore," Chellappa said.

Hiding searches can be more difficult even if a computer is destroyed.

"A lot of the stuff you do online is not just stored on your machine, possibly, it's stored somewhere else as well," Chellappa said.

In other words, your online searches leave trails that investigators can track to find out where you went online, what you looked at and with whom you exchanged emails.

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