Home Business IT Business Telecommunications Data recovery from external drives may be harder than you expect

Data recovery from external drives may be harder than you expect

A data recovery specialist has warned that WD external drives present particular recovery issues when failure occurs. WD says it's not that simple.

Adrian Briscoe, general manager of Kroll Ontrack's Asia-Pacific operations told iTWire that the growing use of encryption is causing some problems when the company tries to recover data from damaged disks.

In particular, he said that WD external drives incorporate an encryption chip, so if there's a problem with the case it isn't possible to transplant the drive mechanism into another case.

That sounded like a serious matter, especially as Briscoe noted WD's big market share in Australia. So we checked with WD, and it turns out it's not quite that simple.

WD My Passport models - the company's portable range - do indeed include hardware encryption, but its use is not mandatory. Encryption and portable devices go well together, as there's probably more chance that you'll lose a drive while travelling than have it stolen from your office.

Encryption makes sense when sensitive data is stored on notebooks (Windows and OS X both support drive encryption), and the same goes for portable storage.

But WD officials confirmed that Briscoe was correct to the extent that if the encryption feature of a My Passport drive is activated then it is not possible to recover the data after transferring the mechanism to another My Passport enclosure.

Read more of what they had to say on page 2 - along with a warning for SSD users.


"WD Elements external drives do not offer the password encryption [feature] and thus the scenario described above does not apply," they stated.

A thorough backup strategy is always important, but it becomes absolutely critical when hardware encryption is used in this way as there's no real chance of recovery from a hardware failure. While we don't have any firm evidence, anecdotes suggest that external drive cases tend to fail more often than drive mechanisms, and several acquaintances have been able to recover all the data from 'broken' external drives by fitting the drive itself into a generic case following a failure.

Briscoe also noted that this case-swapping strategy doesn't work with some WD external drives as they do not use the standard SATA interface. Again, that is true, but it is not the full story.

"Select My Passport models utilise a native USB interface, rather than [a] standard SATA-USB bridge, to streamline enclosure design and provide consumers high capacities in very small, portable products," WD officials said.

This suggests the case is just cosmetic and protective rather than providing an interface between the external bus (usually USB) and the drive itself, but as long as encryption isn't in use there seems to be no barrier to transplanting the drive to another case of the same type, although temporarily switching enclosures with a newly-purchased My Passport would void the warranties.

While we're on the subject of data recovery, Brisco also said recovering data from SSDs is an all-or-nothing business, whereas recovery from a problematic hard disk can result in anything from 0% to 100% success. So if you're using a notebook with solid-state storage (or, for that matter, an iMac with the Fusion Drive option or any other device that includes SSD), make sure your backup practices are sound.

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Stephen Withers

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Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.