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Is it possible to recover lost data from your phone?

Today, it’s fair to say that almost everybody owns a smartphone. Last year (2016) alone nearly 1.5 billion units were sold worldwide and smartphone sales grow from each quarter to the next according to Gartner. IDC states that this year (2017) sales have risen by 7.4 percent from the second quarter and that third-quarter sales were up by 2.7 percent year over year.

Despite this success, the smartphone itself is quite young when compared to other electronic devices. It is now only 10 years since Apple introduced its first iPhone in 2007, which is regarded as the beginning of the modern smartphone era, even though there were some advanced mobile phones and PDAs prior to it that had some comparable features (that we would now consider as ‘normal’).

With the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, other companies quickly followed with other models and operating systems. However, now only two operating systems really dominate the worldwide market: Android (by Google) and iOS (by Apple).

Is smaller technology better?

Besides the operating systems, these mobile phones have evolved from being voice communication devices to products which combine a lot of functions and applications, making them more like hand-sized mini computers today.

This was made possible with the decreasing size of the built-in electronic parts which are necessary for these devices to work, namely smaller controllers, processor chips and memory.

More advanced and smaller parts are therefore put inside the casing, which hasn’t changed much in size since the original Apple design of 2007. But what has evolved over the last 10 years is what can be stored inside the smartphone; storage space (with or without removable flash memory cards) has multiplied drastically.

Due to the increase of storage and complexity of the devices, getting lost data back from smartphones is not an easy task and every smartphone data recovery – just like from hard drives, tapes or high-end servers – presents its own unique challenge each time.

Different kinds of smartphone data loss

As with other data storage devices, one has to differentiate between data loss caused by a mechanical or physical failure or one that is caused by a logical failure.

A physical failure can occur when the flash memory chip or the built-in controller chip is damaged, which can often happen when a phone is dropped on the ground or into liquid. Another cause can be when the memory chips are of a low quality, provoking interruptions that ultimately stops data being saved properly right from the beginning.

A logical failure however usually consists of missing or false file structures or connections, corrupt files and file formats as well as wrong storage space assignments. In such cases, the files are not recognised or handled by the operating system anymore, even though they are still stored in the storage medium (the flash memory).

Should you DIY if you lose data?

In some cases (when a logical failure caused the problem, for example in the case of a faulty system update), it is possible that a smartphone user can recover their lost data by using special smartphone data recovery software. There are several tools available on the market and on the Internet. Before using such software it is wise to inform yourself about all the pros and cons before trying to recover data.

In severe data loss cases – both physical as well as logical – a normal user cannot recover data by themselves. Instead, this type of job needs to be carried out by a recovery expert.

When a smartphone will not start properly, it is most likely that the device and data stored have severe defects. In these cases there are so many complex problems to consider, that normal do-it-yourself methods will not work or will even cause more severe problems. Such tampering of your device could even make data recovery work impossible later down the line.

What can data recovery experts do?

When problems with the built-in electronic parts is the cause of a malfunction or data loss then data recovery experts and smartphone repair services should always be contacted in the first instance. They have the necessary tools and spare parts to both repair and recover the lost data.

If for example a controller of a smartphone is broken, then a data recovery expert might disassemble the device, locate the original controller and change it with an unused controller of the same kind if it possible that the new one will provide access to the data.

In other cases, the memory chips will be removed from the smartphone and read out by special hardware and software tools. These will have been custom built and engineering by the research and development department of a data recovery service provider, or the experts will use tools that are not available to the broad public. Additionally, they can also repair smartphones that have suffered mechanical damage like broken displays or cases.

In case of logical data loss, other specialists are in demand: Here the data recovery lab engineers use special software tools to recover the data which in many cases are not only not amenable but also corrupted. Then they not only read out the data from the device but also fix the files in a second step.

What should you do if you lose data?

At Kroll Ontrack, we receive a large amount of flash-based SSD devices throughout the year for data recovery, which in turn means that we have seen many different types of data loss situations. In our experience, no scenario is exactly the same, however, there are certain things that remain the same with every case.

For instance, for a data recovery to be successful, the owners of the device must also do their part; if it is obvious that there is a serious physical or logical problem, there should be no attempt to rescue data on a DIY basis. This is especially true if you are not experienced in the field and do not have an understanding of working with complex data structures.

In these situations, you should choose a data recovery provider that is recommended by your phone’s manufacturer and holds a high standard of data security. You’ll also want to choose a provider that can conduct third-party work without affecting your device’s warranty.

If you are sure that the device is functioning and the data loss is due to human failure – e.g. deleting files unintentionally – you might be able to help yourself. How? This is what we show in the next blog post.

Have you ever lost data from your smartphone? What happened and what did you do next? Let us know by tweeting @KrollOntrackUK

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