March 22, 2006
I had just started a 101 level college course on the Linux operating system. In the first week we were directed to download the current Ubuntu .iso and create a live CD to use for the course's assignments. The recommendation of the instructor was to use the live function of the CD instead of installing the OS to keep things simple. But, seeing as how I have issues keeping things simple, decided to dual-boot the family laptop. Now, in those days the process to dual-boot a computer while maintaining the existing OS was fraught with peril. Resizing the existing partition was tricky, especially when that partition was a year or so old and covered in fragmented records. Knowing this, I did what we all tell others to do but rarely accomplish for ourselves: I made backups.
This laptop contained a very precious archive; every picture and video of my children that we had taken up to that point. Some, but not many had been printed and this was pre-social media and cloud storage crazes. I burned the pics and vids to a CD and safely stored the disc in a hard case. Following the backup I proceed with the dual-booting processes which, of course, failed and prompted a full disk wipe and reinstall. I did end up with the two OS configuration that was desired, following which I re-inserted that CD of backed up precious data.
The CD would not mount.
I didn't know what to do. I spent days researching the issue. Visually, the burn was there on the disc, but the damned thing just wouldn't mount in any computer's drive. This left me with a very unpleasant task to perform; fess up to the wife. I don't recall her actual response though she's very mellow, I'm still alive, and we remained married (for a while longer) -- so I don't think it was an overly dramatic event. I did follow this with another action. I preserved the CD. I secured it in the hard plastic case that CDs came in back in those days and stored it away in one of my boxes of things. My hope was that one day I would learn some skill, or some tool would be brought to my attention, or even a person would come into my sphere who could recover the lost treasures. Every so often since that fateful event I would do some research or try to mount the CD in a new computer. Every time only to meet with disappointment.
June 6, 2019
My marriage had just ended and as seems to be the norm, it did not end on friendly terms. Things got combative and as is always the case in divorce, we were both the losers. But, once it was done I immediately decided to try to mend what I could for us to be effective and civil co-parents to our kids. A day earlier I visited our storage unit and retrieved my belongings. Once I unloaded the multiple boxes and tubs at my new residence I began to dig through. I had looked for the cursed CD about a year or so before and failed to find it. My fear was that in one of the purges that we cleaned out old things, that it had been accidentally thrown away. But after some time, there it was. Seeing it made me feel the shame of the event all over again. Why did I not validate the backup? It would have taken only a minute to discover the burn had failed, and make another, and another until a verified archive existed.
But the TC of today is not the same as the one who made such a tragic mistake. Today I do possess some knowledge of data forensics, and access to people who either are or know someone who is extremely skilled in the discipline. I put a message out on a group chat about the project, nothing immediately came back but the seed was planted. In the meantime I started my own experimenting with the challenge. My first attempt was with an application that read each sector of the disc and output a raw .iso while also trying to recover data. The .iso creation worked, however no files were extracted by the application.
Applying some of my own knowledge I decided to create a hex dump of the .iso. My thought was to look for the known image file type headers to determine if the pictures even existed.
grep -i "ffd8 ff" medium.hex
2916db0 e2a1 cb52 c6cc 252d ffd8 ff0d 470e 4859
6673400 85dc 855f 4111 ffd8 ff50 480c 158d 715f
6a2c280 1482 c9d8 6e22 9efb ffd8 ff22 4b79 3afe
c6a42f0 ac84 11fc 04f6 a8cf ffd8 ffc0 925a a4e2
They're there! I'm so close. I thought, all I have to do is scrape each one out -- simple scripting! But wait, surely such a thing already exists...
Enter TestDisk 7.1-WIP, Data Recovery Utility by Christophe Grenier
I started the utility and sat holding my breath. After a few minutes a result updated. It had found what it thought was a JPEG. I navigated to the folder, opened the file, and there staring back at me was my first born as a toddler. I had literal tears. My hands were shaking as I opened the next file to appear and the next and the next. Even the videos were recovered! I turned up my laptop's speakers to hear the sounds of my children as newborn and toddler. This moment was spectacular. And while I enjoyed this victory I thought to myself, what better way to begin mending the burnt bridges between my now ex-wife and I than to gift her with this amazing recovery?
Now, obviously the first thing to do was to create numerous, validated backups. The pictures and videos now live on a few cloud providers as well as local storage. I'm not losing these things again!
My kids came to visit a few days later. We sat down and enjoyed the memories. They, of course, have no recollection of the pictures being taken nor of the original event. But they had heard the story more than once about dad losing all of the baby pics. We also put together a photo album on one of those sites that does the printing and binding for a physical book. This I had shipped direct to their mom, an olive branch if you will.
Since then we've had a chance to all sit down and enjoy the recovered trove. She and I have various memories of the times surrounding the pictures that we've shared with the kids, much to their delight. I've not heard a word of thanks or appreciation from her regarding the files or the album but that's fine. It will be some time before we get back to expressing such things I suppose but at least we're on a path to not being the typical divorced former couple who are locked in eternal struggle of veiled insults and bitter actions.
In the end this is a happy story. Mistakes were made, losses occurred, and a journey was undertaken over 13 years to achieve victory.
The lesson? Verify your backups.