Tag Archives: information technology

Awkward Adventures in Digital Forensics

So, this happened at work yesterday:

Awkward Seal meets Digital Forensics

Awkward Seal meets Digital Forensics

Yep, that happened.

I should probably back up:

Libraries and archives have been long familiar with all manner of ways to handle, preserve, provide access to, and generally “deal with” paper- (and film-) based materials (letters, diaries, newspapers, photographs, microfilm, etc.)—-you know, the stuff you can hold IN YOUR HANDS and see what it is—-and even, to a reasonable extent stuff you can’t see what it is just by looking at it (audio/video tapes?).

And then there’s all this “new” digital stuff. I say “new” in quotation marks because, hey, it’s really not THAT new. But it’s a lot newer than, say, paper. But it’s new enough. New enough that for many years, archivists have been sort of…shall we just say, not dealing with it quite to the extent that one might have hoped?

Digital stuff — floppy disks, CDs, DVDs, USB flash drives, hard drives, etc. (not to mention your online life, like webmail and social media) — actually takes a lot more coddling than the paper stuff. Did you ever go up to your grandmother’s attic or your father’s garage and stumble onto a box of neat paper stuff from like 50+ years ago? And you rummaged through it, awed by all the neat things you either never saw before or had completely forgotten about?  Who hasn’t done that, right?

Well, if in 50 years, you stumble onto a box of today’s records, you might be out of luck because there’s a good chance those records will be stored on some type of digital media. Yep, imagine you just found a box of CDs, or better yet floppy disks. Imagine a box of floppy disks in 50 years. You have enough trouble finding the drive you need to read those NOW, am I right?

USB floppy disk drive

USB floppy disk drives are about $15 on Amazon – if you have floppies, get one and start your migration now, while you still can!

OK, so digital media present a variety of challenges to archivists. It’s actually pretty fragile (keep away from light, heat, and in some cases magnets); it’s dependent on technology/hardware to read it (not just your eyes or a magnifying glass); and it can’t survive by accident like a box of papers could. And those are just some of the problems of keeping the data “alive.” Not to mention figuring out how to arrange and describe the files or to provide access to them.

(Here’s a tip: Writing the equivalent of “oh there’s also 1 floppy disk” somewhere in your finding aid probably isn’t going to be super helpful. What’s on it? Do you even know? Can you trust the label—if there even is one? And if it’s on floppy disk, how are you going to let patrons use it? Do you have a floppy disk drive available? And how are you going to make sure that nobody accidentally overwrites the data? Oh and what if the floppy disk spontaneously stops working at some point — or already has — and who hasn’t experienced that?—no comments from those of you too young to even remember floppy disks!— Man those transparent neon ones were the worst for failing at inopportune times—probably due to light damage, I know now!)

OK so there are all these…problems. And a lot of archives have been sort of sweeping this problem under the rug for a while now. Well, the research about how to deal with these problems seems to have been growing rather exponentially over the past several years, and so a lot of us are finally getting our digital act together and attempting to figure out what to do…including the archives where I work.

My co-worker Toni (as the preservation archivist) and I (as the digital initiatives archivist) have been charged with learning how to handle our collections’ digital preservation needs. We’ve been attending “digital preservation” and “electronic records” workshops (SAA’s Digital Forensics for Archivists 2-day workshop was fantastic); reading up on all sorts of things (highly recommend OCLC’s Demystifying Born Digital Reports as a starting point for anyone interested in this topic- they’re simple & to the point, but great); and downloading & experimenting (on test data sets/disks only) with free & trial software (such as FTK Imager). We have learned about using write-blockers and creating disk images to capture the entire contents of a piece of media without inadvertently changing it or missing anything.

Which brings us to what happened yesterday—and another lesson in digital stuff (and this lesson is for everyone, not just archivists).

So we were experimenting with FTK Imager yesterday afternoon, and we popped in a floppy disk I had brought from home. It had a blank adhesive label on it (on which I later wrote my name once I discovered the contents), and we had used Windows Explorer to drag/drop two boring Microsoft Office documents onto it so we were sure there would be something to image.

Here’s what the contents of that floppy disk looked like to Microsoft Windows (2 files):

Floppy disk contents viewed in Windows Explorer

Floppy disk contents viewed in Windows Explorer

Then, we used FTK Imager to create a disk image, capturing ALLLLLLLL of the contents of that disk——including remnants of any deleted files that were never overwritten. That’s right, I said deleted files.

So when we looked at the disk contents in FTK Imager, here’s what we saw (and that’s about the time my jaw dropped and I started with the nervous “omigod-blast-from-the-past-in-a-bad-way” laughter as Toni looked over my shoulder probably wondering if I had gone mad):

Floppy disk contents viewed in FTK Imager

Floppy disk contents viewed in FTK Imager

Um yeah, that’s more than the 2 files I was expecting. Apparently, this was a disk that I DID use…in 2002…and still had lying around. I recognized (and was immediately mortified by the presence of) a diary entry from an ex-boyfriend, nor was I thrilled about what those chat logs from AOL Instant Messenger (hey remember that?) might contain. I also recognized other innocuous MS Office documents: Excel files containing lists of all my classes & grades, Word documents with translations for Latin class (such as the copy of Tacitus’s Annales you can see selected in the image—notice that you can see the hex as well as the text in the window underneath), and other things that looked like school stuff. (We actually exported and opened some of these files I deemed definitely-not-embarrassing. — Oh, and I have since, in the privacy of my own home, looked at that diary entry and the chat logs—-all totally harmless, but who doesn’t have things from sophomore year of college that they’d rather not revisit in front of co-workers?)

We actually were able to learn some things during this experiment, some of which actually pertained to what we were trying to do, but the most salient of these lessons (for me at least) was this:

The IT folks are not just making things up when they tell you that your files are not really gone simply because you hit delete and you cannot “see” them in your operating system anymore. The data is still there unless it is overwritten.

All you did was delete the pointer to that data, cluing your drive in that it can reuse that space if it wants to. If you tore the index pages out of the back of a book, does the content of the book cease to exist? Nope. Sort of like that. If you are interested in a technical explanation of what’s going on when you delete files and why they’re not really gone, I highly recommend this blog post: How-To Geek Explains: Why Deleted Files Can Be Recovered and How You Can Prevent It.

But the bottom line is that when you delete a file, it’s not really gone. I knew this. I KNEW this. But knowing it on the level of “I read it in a book and I’ve heard knowledgeable people say it also,” and knowing it on the level of “omigod I just saw the proof” are not the same. (This must be why they make you do lab experiments in chem class…)

And omigod I just saw the proof. And that was WAY. TOO. EASY.

So. HTG (How-To Geek) suggests some ways to actually truly erase data if/when you need to. But personally, if I had something I wanted to never see the light of…well, a screen…again EVER, then I would only be satisfied with the physical destruction of the media (better copy anything you actually DO want onto a new drive first though). So, to conclude, for your viewing enjoyment, here are some YouTube videos of people physically destroying data on:

…hard drives (you’re going to need a hammer to bust up the platters inside)…

…floppy disks (some of the videos just crinkled them but I wouldn’t trust anything that doesn’t involve cutting up that magnetic disk)…

…and CDs (oh there are tons for this one—who hasn’t tried the microwave one? the melting one is fun—and of course there’s always just breaking it—but one guy even claims to have 101 ways)…

OK, that’s enough fun for now. Hopefully I was able to turn this slightly embarrassing work story into a teachable moment! And yes, I have taken that disk home with me and it will be getting destroyed…

Carry on, folks, and listen to your IT guys!

Ex post facto reference: Saving digital photos to floppy disks? (Don’t)

Yesterday on my Search Terms (under my blog stats), I noticed the following question: “can i save my digital pictures to old floppy disks”?

Oh my…where to even begin?

Floppy disk by Giovy.it, on Flickr

Floppy disk by Giovy.it, on Flickr

I’ll tell you the short answer right up front, but not without a little bit of English-language semantic snark:

Can you save your digital photos to old floppy disks? Maybe. It depends on the file size and which old floppy disks (3.5″? 5.25″?) we’re talking about.

But I think the question you really want to ask is: Should you save your  digital photos to old floppy disks? And the answer to that is a resounding NO. No, no, no. No, thanks. No way. Do not want. Even hell to the no. And I’ll tell you why in a minute.


But first, let’s assume that for some unfathomable reason you MUST save your digital photos to old floppy disks. (Maybe it’s a scenario like that poster my math teacher used to have where the kid’s “why do I need to know this?” question is being answered by means of some ruffian putting a gun to his head and demanding that he “solve for x” in some equation. But I digress…)

First, let’s talk about what you mean by “old floppy disks”. How “old” are we talking, here? Do you mean “old” style — like, oldschool floppy disks you just bought new at the store (yes, some stores still sell them)? Or are they actually OLD — like, you found vintage ’80s and ’90s floppy disks in a box in your basement? (This plays into my “should you” argument more than “can you”, but it’s still something to clarify.) For the sake of this example (exempli gratia), let’s assume that whatever floppy disks you have, they’re currently in good shape. Somehow.

And are you referring to the 3.5″ floppy disks — the ones we all used in the late ’90s with the hard shell?

floppy disks for breakfast by Blude, on Flickr

floppy disks for breakfast by Blude, on Flickr

Or are we going back even older to the 5.25″ floppy disks — the more-common-in-the-’80s ones that are actually flimsy.

5.25 inch floppy disks by avlxyz, on Flickr

5.25 inch floppy disks by avlxyz, on Flickr

Here’s where “can you” comes into play. The capacity of those “old” floppy disks in most cases is going to be less than 3 MB per disk. Most 3.5″ floppy disks you will run across are going to be 1.44 MB. Most 5.25″ floppy disks are going to be less than that. The capacity can vary even among disks of the same size — I did not even realize how much it can vary until I looked at this chart on Wikipedia’s Floppy Disk article — but if we are talking “old floppy disks,” we are going to be talking small storage capacity compared to what’s available in newer technologies, no matter how you slice it. (For the sake of my sanity, I’m going to assume that the “old floppy disks” we’re talking about are probably the 3.5 inch, 1.44 MB ones, from here on out, because as a child of the ’90s, those are the ones I used most, and those are the ones I tend to find lying around more often than the older 5.25″ ones — although my Dad still has a bunch of them.)

And now let’s think about the file sizes of digital photos today. Obviously, it depends on the number of megapixels your camera is capable of capturing, as well as the quality it is actually set on. All of the cameras I use on a regular basis are 5-6 megapixels, which, according to this chart I found, should yield digital photos that are about 2.5 megabytes each. (And yes, that is about right, judging from the photos saved on my computer. But I’ve linked to the chart in case your camera has a different number of megapixels — which it probably does.)

Okay, so let’s compare: If 1 photo is 2.5 megabytes and 1 floppy disk is 1.44 megabytes, how many photos can you fit on that floppy? The answer is zero. (Well, unless you want to use some kind of file-splitting utility — remember WinRar? — but if you knew how to do that, I’m going to assume you wouldn’t still be trying to save digital photos on floppy disks. No offense.)

Now, sure, if your camera is only 2 megapixels, that’s only going to be about 900 KB (about 0.9 megabytes), so yes, you could fit one onto a floppy disk. Or, if you have scanned some photos at a really low quality — like back in the Day before I knew better and scanned a bunch of photos at 150 dpi, making each 4×6 photo file about 20-80 KB — then, you could probably fit several on a floppy disk (but even then it would only be like 15 files).

Something else to consider in the whole “can you” side of things is the hardware involved.

I’m going to assume that if you’re asking whether you can save digital photos to floppy disks, that you already have a plethora of floppy disks (and trust me, you will need a LOT of them), either from some dusty box in your closet or some (probably also dusty) ones that you bought at the store.

But do you still have a floppy disk drive? Does your current computer still look something like these?

Old Computers: Give Away or Recycle? by kalebdf, on Flickr

Old Computers: Give Away or Recycle? by kalebdf, on Flickr

See how prominently the floppy disk drive was featured in these older computers? That Dell on the right even has it molded right into the case. (We used to have one like that, perhaps that very model. We bought it in 1999.)

But these days, many computers don’t come with floppy disk drives in them anymore. They went out of laptops first (kind of like how a lot of laptops don’t even have CD drives anymore these days). Now you’d be hard-pressed to find a desktop computer that comes with a floppy disk drive.

If you don’t have a working floppy disk drive, you can still buy an external one that connects by USB.

External floppy disk drive by Nicholas Chan, inicholas.net

Photo by Nicholas Chan / NCDN, inicholas.net, via Flickr

I actually have one of these (similar to the one above) for whenever I find a random floppy disk at the house and need to find out what’s on it and whether I want to continue saving the data (in which case I transfer it to another media).

Okay, I think those are all the aspects I wanted to cover in the “can you” analysis.

And so, the answer to “Can you save digital photos to old floppy disks?” is: If you have a perfect storm of actually having digital photos small enough to fit onto whatever size floppy disk you have; if that floppy disk is functional and you have access to the equipment (i.e. floppy drive) necessary to read/write to that floppy disk….then, yes, technically, you can save digital photos (though probably not more than 1 unless they are really low quality) to a floppy disk.

But, more importantly:


As I said before, the quick and dirty, just-give-me-the-bottom-line-and-spare-me-the-sermon answer is NO. Don’t do it.

If you want the sermon portion, read on. (Haha – who am I kidding? Obviously you are interested in the explanation of things, or you would have quit reading long before now.)

I’ve already mentioned obsolescence. Even the original questioner used the word “old” in his/her query. Floppy disks are old. Even if you bought them new, they are old. They are an old format of media. There is no good reason to cling to them as a solution for storing today’s files. You will have trouble finding them; you will have trouble finding the necessary hardware to access them. Even if you still have the hardware to access them, what about when it stops working? You will have trouble replacing it.

So move on. Move on now. And please jump ahead to today’s storage solutions; don’t meander your way through all the media that came in between floppy disks and today. If you want some advice about today’s storage options, check out my earlier blog post about Saving your digital photos, Part 2: How to do it (6/12/2012).

Another reason why you shouldn’t use floppy disks is, as I have touched on already, the ratio of digital photo file size to the disk’s storage capacity. That is, the size of a single digital photo file is way too close to the maximum storage capacity of a floppy disk. You won’t be able to store very many digital photos on a floppy disk, unless they are (for whatever reason) really low quality. As an example: I went to a wedding the other day. I took over 120 digital photos, all of which are more than 1.44 MB each. Even if I had set the camera down to 2 megapixels – which would be a bad idea in itself but let’s just pretend I went crazy and did it – then I would have files of 0.9 MB each (according to the chart linked above), I would still need one floppy disk for each photo. That’s 120+ floppy disks.

Think about that from a financial and physical storage space standpoint. It doesn’t make sense. It’s going to cost you a fortune to store your all your digital photo files on floppy disks (unless, okay, you already own a bunch, which is probably the real reason you’re asking). AND, they are going to take up a ton of space.

floppies by functoruser, on Flickr

floppies by functoruser, on Flickr

Alternatively, you could store the same 120 photo files — which, at 0.9 MB each, that comes to about 108 MB — on a single CD (with tons of space to spare) for a cost of about $1 or even on something like Dropbox cloud storage for free (you get 2 gigabytes for free).

One more really important thing to consider as to why you shouldn’t still be using floppy disks (for digital photos or anything else) is their tendency to fail – completely and unexpectedly – for no apparent reason. It’s like one day, the disk is perfectly fine, and then the next day, it simply will not read. It’s like it committed suicide without ever seeming depressed or even leaving a note; it gave no warning signs and you had no idea anything was even wrong until it was too late.

(And then, in our anger and frustration, many of us — myself included — had a tendency to do this — am I right?

Death of the floppy disk (42/365) by Rob Hayes., on Flickr

Death of the floppy disk (42/365) by Rob Hayes., on Flickr

I’m not suggesting that other types of media don’t fail. They do. Oh, boy do they ever, sometimes. So you should always have backups (second copies) of things you actually want to protected from loss (again, see my Saving your digital photos entries from June 2012). But floppy disks just seem to be worse about randomly kicking the bucket, compared to most other media I’ve used. CDs, you can see the scratches; hard drives usually start making the “click of death”. Floppy disks tend to…just keel over one day.

Anyway, bottom line is : You really shouldn’t still be trying to use “old floppy disks” for your storage needs, for digital photos or anything else. The reasons for that being (to reiterate):

  • The media is already obsolete;
  • The storage capacity is too small to be useful for most file types these days (or for holding more than a handful of said files); and
  • Floppy disks have  tendency to fail epically without warning (worse than other media I’ve used).

So in answer to the original question: “can i save my digital pictures to old floppy disks”? You might be able to, if all the stars align. But should you? Absolutely not.

And if you have old floppy disks lying around and you are still reluctant to just chuck them in the bin? The only uses I can, in good conscience, recommend for those old floppies involve arts and crafts, such as these lovely examples:

Project 365 #30: 300109 Never Say Die by comedy_nose, on Flickr

Project 365 #30: 300109 Never Say Die by comedy_nose, on Flickr


Sunday DIY - Floppy Disk Pen Holder - 5/5 by rintakumpu, on Flickr

Sunday DIY – Floppy Disk Pen Holder – 5/5 by rintakumpu, on Flickr

Have fun!