What's the #1 data loss cause in the world in 2016?

10 February 2017 by Michael Nuncic

Since April 2015, when Ontrack first launched its free Self-Assessment Tool, almost 10,000 global users have accessed the service anonymously to receive first line advice. Users answer a few simple questions to receive valuable customised information about what to do when they experience a data loss. For example when a user notices their hard drive is vibrating, this is generally a sign that there is physical damage to the spinning platter and/or surrounding parts within the hard drive. In this case further attempts to read the disk may risk causing further damage to the data. The web-based tool offers a warning to stop using the device immediately and to get support from a reputable data recovery company as fast as possible. Other valuable tips are given based on the symptoms reported by the user. In total the user can request advice for six different types of devices – e.g. laptop/desktop, external or Flash drive etc. – selecting from with 13 different types of symptoms and four different operating systems – a total of over half a quadrillion potential customised responses.

Over the last 18 months Kroll Ontrack has not only provided help via this tool by offering a quick, customised and free assessment of how to deal with the most common causes of data loss in HDD or SSD failures listed on the provided query list, but also gained valuable statistical information. After every quarter Kroll Ontrack publishes the Data Loss Index (DLI) which reviews the results of the previous three months, offering insights based on the information the users gave about the causes for their data loss.

The most common symptoms

The findings from last year show that the two most common symptoms users claimed to have experienced in 2016 were:

  1. Undetected devices
  2. Dropped devices

Undetected media grew from 25% in Q1 to 27% and 29% in Q2 and Q3 respectively, ending the year with 36%. That is an overall increase of more than 45% over the last year. However the second place in the DLI ranking - dropped devices - remained consistent: although the numbers steadily declined from 10% in Q1 to 9% Q2 and 8% in Q3, this number spiked during the last quarter up to 13%.

What does “undetected device” really mean?

Based on the global experience of the clean room and lab engineers at Kroll Ontrack, the problem of undetected media is very common. That a media device is no longer recognised can be due to many reasons, the three most frequent reasons being:

  • read/write head has a defect
  • controller or electronic part is broken
  • service area – the area on a hard disk, which has all the necessary information about the disk – is corrupt

Which were the most affected devices?

Over the last year, the most affected media were external devices and laptops with cases reported for both ranging between 31 and 41%. Flash devices had its ups and downs adding up to 7% of the cases in Q1, 9% in Q2, 6% in Q3 and ending with 12% in the last quarter. Servers came in third place with 14% of the total reported cases in Q1, 13% in Q2, 15% in Q3 and almost 10% in Q4 of 2016.


The results show a huge gap between HDDs and SSDs as the main storage medium being used by the participants of the Self-Assessment Tool. The results show that data loss in HDDs made up 76% of the cases in Q1 climbing up to 81% in Q3 and finally slightly declining to 78% in Q4. SSDs however declined slightly from 10% in Q1 to 8% in Q4.

These figures only show the distribution of storage media by the users of Kroll Ontrack’s Self-Assessment Tool so to extrapolate that HDDs fail more often than SSDs would be a mistake. It is more likely that since there are still more HDDs in use (until recently they were quite cheaper in comparison to SSDs) the number of failures is much higher. What can be said for certain is that, when SSDs fail, a data recovery is likely to be more difficult.

For example, SSDs can suffer logical damage and are more likely to completely overwrite deleted files before saving new data onto the same space in the drive. In contrast, HDDs appear to delete data but actually that space is marked as “available” and is ready to be overwritten with new data when required.

Fire and water: surprise, surprise…

One might have guessed that undetected and dropped devices are the two most common results in 2016, but what came as a surprise were two other symptoms identified as “common causes” for worldwide data loss: fire and liquid damage. During 2016, up to 99 respondents reported experiencing data loss due to fire. While Kroll Ontrack did not gather information about how these fires happened, our data recovery experts were still surprised by the high number of cases. Interestingly the majority of these events (76) happened during the first six months of the year, with numbers declining later in the year (only 7 incidents took place between October and December).

Liquid damage was also a popular cause of data loss – consider the scenario of dropping your smartphone in the toilet or your laptop in the bathtub or pool. More than 300 respondents suffered this type of data loss in 2016, nearly twice as often as data loss caused by viruses, which accounted for 171 total entries in the Self-Assessment Tool.

Self-Assessment Tool helps improve solutions for users

Kroll Ontrack’s Self-Assessment Tool allows users to get free, quick and easy access to advice on what to do if their device fails. They receive tips about what not to do, potentially saving them from a permanent data loss.

Through the information gathered Ontrack is able to gain insights to better address the demand for data recovery in the market through their specialist services.