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Does Emptying Trash in Email Keep Others from Seeing My Deleted Email?

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I’m a very casual user of email. I have two free accounts: one on Yahoo and one on Gmail. I have long passwords, but even so, I can’t be assured that my account won’t be hacked or that emails won’t be otherwise read or distributed. My question is, if someone hacks my email account, can they somehow obtain the emails that I supposedly permanently deleted by emptying the trash container? In other words, am I doing myself any good by keeping my inbox and my trash empty? Thank you.

Emptying the trash is a good approach to making sure messages you’ve deleted stay that way.

But.

Naturally, there is an exception you need to be aware of.

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Trashing your email: gone for good

If you click Empty Trash or Empty Recycle Bin, you won’t be able to recover any messages that used to be in there. Gone is gone.

The good news here is, the same is true for a hacker. Not only would they not be able to recover the former contents of your trash, but they wouldn’t have any indication there was anything there to begin with.

Many desktop-based email programs offer the option of automatically emptying the trash when you close the program. While this is mostly an effort to save disk space, it also makes recovery of those messages harder.

Web-based email services like Yahoo!, Gmail, Outlook.com, and others typically leave messages in your trash or recycle bin for only so long — like 30 days — before deleting them permanently. I’m not aware of any automated immediate “empty the trash on exit” functions for web email, though, so you’ll need to do that manually if it’s what you want.

Is it really gone for good?

Computer at the data center Remember that email providers — in your case, Yahoo! and Gmail — back up their servers.

While you and I wouldn’t be able to access the email that used to be in our trash, it’s possible someone at the email provider could. For example, they might be able to access it from a backup taken before you deleted it, or other resources they maintain that we simply don’t know about.

Generally, this isn’t a huge risk when we consider hacking. It would take a rogue employee, or someone actually hacking into the data center and then knowing where to look, to find those backups. I consider this malicious scenario extremely unlikely.

But there’s another scenario people often don’t think about.

The long arm of the law

Let’s say an email may be of interest to law enforcement or the legal system.  In fact, let’s say it’s an email you deleted and then emptied your trash, so even you wouldn’t be able to recover it.

Email providers are often compelled by court orders to retrieve data.

We don’t know how often — they don’t publicize the requests — and we don’t know if those requests include digging into backups. We don’t even know how long email providers keeps backups.

But the point is, in theory, an email provider could be compelled to recover messages you had removed from your trash.

To be clear, it’s not something they do lightly. If you asked them to recover one lost message, they’re more likely to tell you “tough luck” and that the data is gone forever.

But if what you’re concerned about has legal, political, or other ramifications, it is conceivable they could recover a deleted email message.

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Posted: February 21, 2020
This is an update to an article originally posted April 18, 2013
Shortlink: https://askleo.com/6401
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17 comments on “Does Emptying Trash in Email Keep Others from Seeing My Deleted Email?”

  1. I don’t like people frantically deleting everything they even think they don’t need anymore, because you never know when you want to look at it one more time. I don’t say you can’t delete email, just that since that deletion is permanent for all intents and purposes, you should be careful with it. Especially Gmail these days has ample space, so there’s really no need to delete anything in my opinion. I’m not familiar with Yahoo, but I imagine they too will give you space for quite a few messages.
    So just be careful, and use labels or folders to stow away messages you don’t want cluttering your inbox, rather than just destroying everything. Unless of course you have something to hide, but then maybe you should just use a longer password, or get your own domain and mail server that you control (sort of: if you rent it from some hosting company, they will still be backing it up).

    Reply
  2. AND if you did have your own Domain and Mail Server, would you NOT follow “Good Practice” and back it up?

    ———————-

    I suggest that one would expect ISPs to retain Back-ups including “deleted” files etc, for the minimum required in their “home” legal regime.

    For example, in Scotland, physical Receipts for Paid Bills should be retained for at least 5 years, to provide proof of that payment. For some items it is 6 years.

    In England & Wales, it is 6 years.

    ————————–

    Technically, does “deletion” on such servers follow the same or similar pattern to PC HDDs, where a “$” sign is added to the file name, to indicate it may be over-written when disk space is required, rather than “eradication” of one sort or another?

    There’s no standard or assumption to be made on this. (And PC’s do NOT use the “$” method you mentioned.)

    Leo
    23-Apr-2013

    Reply
  3. May seem a silly question but where can one get full but easy to understand basic instructions on how to back-up. Lacking this knowledge is possibly the reason why many people, as you have remarked elswhere on your website, do not back-up?

    I have several articles on the site on backing up, including a step by step video series on doing so with Macrium Reflect. Not to mention the Windows 7 Backing Up book I have available. I’ll start you here, at the page that lists most all: Maintenance and Backup

    Leo
    10-May-2013
    Reply
  4. “we don’t know if those requests include digging into backups.”
    We may not know for sure, but I’m certain they look into backups. Otherwise, they’d be missing a ship load of evidence.

    “We don’t even know how long email providers keeps backups.” I don’t know about email providers but when I worked for Texas Instruments, they kept backups for at least 7 years (the statute of limitations for tax audits). I wouldn’t be surprised if they held stuff for a few years. In this case assuming the worst is possible is the safest.

    Reply
  5. Hi Leo,
    I use Outlook for my e-mail. Just to illustrate that “deleted” doesn’t mean gone for good, there is an option in Outlook to recover deleted e-mail messages, even after emptying the Trash folder. I’ve done it a few times just to see what happens. It was a surprise to see just how many messages came up in the list, going well past 30 days. Again, proof that the Internet doesn’t forget.

    Reply
  6. Question: If you use a desktop email program like Mozilla’s Thunderbird and you set the account settings to NOT leave messages on your ISP’s server (Comcast, for example), does that mean Comcast no longer has your messages and they exist only on your own desktop computer?

    Thanks for any insights.

    Reply
  7. “Gone is definitely NOT gone” after deleting mail from Thunderbird’s inbox.
    Check it yourself. Just open the INBOX file with your favorite editor.
    The File => Compress Folders (or right-click on ) should do the trick.

    That is why I’ve also moved these files to encrypted partition.

    Reply
  8. if my emails are indeed gone when i empty the trash, and the
    law wants to go looking through them and my provider grants
    it to them, i believe the courts would call that a fishing expedition.
    it would not be admissible in court. so what would be the point to ask?
    unless the law wanted to find somewhere to look for evidence. but then,
    again, it would be fishing.

    Reply
      • It actually gets way more complicated and ambiguous, since you (and I to some degree) are assuming US or similar law. There are plenty of countries or jurisdictions where “probable cause” isn’t a thing. “Because I said so” is sometimes enough.

        Reply
    • I am not a lawyer, and what you’re postulating is a legal question — however it doesn’t have to be fishing. “We have reason to believe that a message containing ‘X’…” might well be enough for a targeted retrieval. And for that matter, fishing expeditions aren’t necessarily always illegal, just time consuming and costly.

      Reply
  9. Excellent article, Leo, for which many thanks.
    I’ve been using Microsoft Outlook since it became available back in the 90s. Subsequent versions have improved tremendously and search capability is such that I rarely delete anything, especially now that space is no longer a problem. I’ve been greatly relieved and delighted over the years when I’ve searched for and found an e-mail received decades ago. The good thing about Outlook is that it automatically empties the deleted items folder whenever I exit the program.

    Reply

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