Helping you balance your online life

What Really Happens When You Hit ‘Delete’?

Don’t you sometimes wish that life had a DELETE button? You say something stupid to your spouse, just hit delete. You burp in front of the CEO, just hit delete.

Full red recycle bin folder icon, 3D render

At least your computer has a delete button. Well, yes–and no. When you delete a document, it goes into your Trash folder. But it’s still there; it’s just sitting somewhere else and not visible to you. In other words, you have not really deleted it. Instead, you moved it.

Deleting a file on your computer is a lot like throwing out papers in your home office trash can. Until you put that trash into the garbage can on the curb, and it’s hauled away to the dump, those papers can still be retrieved. All you have to do is reach into the trash can and rummage around until you find them. It works the same way with the Trash folder on your computer. The deleted item is still on your hard drive, but in a different place.

Why do you care if a document isn’t really deleted? Just ask embarrassed politicians and corporate executives whose once-deleted emails come back to haunt them in a publicly humiliating way. Even if you’re only deleting old grocery lists or college term papers, there are some items you don’t want lurking just below the digital surface, including personal financial, medical and legal information. Someone could retrieve this data if your laptop is stolen and use it to steal your identity.

Look at it this way: Deleting files from your computer is similar to filing or shredding paper documents. You want to safely store what you need, and digitally “shred” what you don’t.