Are email messages and attachments located on email accounts with Yahoo!,
Gmail, and Hotmail really gone when you delete them?
It seems that such a direct and simple question would warrant a direct and
In a practical sense, I suppose, the answer would be “Yes, as far as you’re
concerned, they’re really gone”.
But that little bit of qualification – “as far as you’re concerned” – opens
up a veritable Pandora’s box of possibilities.
Whether those possibilities matter depends more on why you’re asking than
Sometimes, delete isn’t delete
If you’re asking about an email that you simply deleted from your email account, it’s possible that it’s still there in two fairly common cases:
If the service uses something like a Recycle Bin – a folder that will eventually be emptied, but for the moment, it can allow you to change your mind. It’s there specifically so you can recover something that you didn’t mean to delete in the first place, or if you later, change your mind.
“… what happens when an email service that does keep backups gets served with a court order to produce the contents of your email box as of a certain date in the past?”
If by delete, you mean archive. In Gmail specifically, you’re actually encouraged to keep everything. Rather than deleting email, the default action is to use the Archive command – which does nothing more than remove the Inbox label. The message and its attachments remain in All Mail.
In those cases, the deleted mail can be recovered, often quite simply.
When delete means delete
If your email service doesn’t use a Recycle Bin, or you empty it, or you actually tell Gmail to delete and not archive the email, then yes, the email is deleted and you cannot recover it, as far as you’re concerned.
Hotmail provides some support for actually retrieving emails that have been deleted from your account. A “recover deleted messages” link is typically present in the Deleted messages folder, promising to recover “as many as they can”, which I’ve heard is around five days worth.
Past that date, and in other services, you’re probably out of luck. Deleted email is gone, forever.
Or is it?
Email services backup, too
Like any good service provider – and for that matter, any conscientious computer users – mail services regularly backup the data stored on their computer’s hard disks.
Presumably, this would include the mail stored on those services.
Those backups – assuming that they happen regularly – would be preserved for some length of time so as to be able to be restored in the case of some type of system failure. Hardware and software failure do happen and the only way to protect from data loss in cases like that is to have a backup.
Your messages might be on that backup.
If it exists.
Here’s the problem: the email services do not make public their backup methods and policies. They might keep a backup for a day, a year, or a decade. They might not keep one at all, relying on massive redundancy in their infrastructure to protect them from hardware or other failures.
So your messages might be there or they might not be.
We have no way to know.
A risk that might concern some
The question then becomes this: what happens when an email service that does keep backups gets served with a court order to produce the contents of your email box as of a certain date in the past?
A date on which the email that you later deleted was in your mailbox.
Theoretically, the email service could retrieve that backup and extract from it the email that you had deleted.
There are many “ifs” to this scenario: if they have backups, if they keep the long enough, if the backup was taken while the email was in your mailbox, if the court decided that something was important enough to issue a warrant, and so on.
It’s not a likely scenario and one that, quite honestly, most of us should never have to worry about.
But of course, perhaps a few should.
Two more practical places that it could be
Email, by definition, is a message sent from one person to another.
You might have deleted it, but what about the person you sent it to, or received it from?
So one place that the message could still remain is that other person.
And finally, if you downloaded that email or an attachment to your own computer – be it by using a desktop email program or simply downloading the attachment directly – there are various scenarios, including your own backups, that could make the message recoverable. The chances are typically slim, but it’s another place to at least be aware of.