A Quick Guide to Understanding Media Corruption

Thursday, July 21, 2016 by Milagros Gamero


Modern drives have advanced at an astounding rate in recent years, but despite all these innovations, media corruption still remains an issue in today’s data recovery industry. Before we delve in to the deeper issues associated with media corruption, we need to understand what causes corruption and how it can be diagnosed within the context of data recovery.

1. What is media corruption?

Media corruption is the loss or change of computer data during transmission or retrieval.

2. What causes media corruption?

Corruption is often caused when the data transfer process is interrupted or disturbed. The cause can be from electronics failures, power surges or internal mechanical problems.

3. How does media corruption damage data storage devices?

Corruption can affect any type of storage device; from hard drives to USB sticks, from RAIDs to Floppy disks. Media corruption can modify or destroy important information which can render a storage device inoperable and inaccessible.

4. Why can media corruption cause so much damage?

Every device has a certain routine which performs when it boots up. During this process, the device needs to access important information that tells it how to communicate with the host (whether it is plugged into a laptop, desktop or other piece of hardware). If this data has damage or is corrupt, the device no longer knows how to boot, and hence it can potentially become inoperable.

5. Can you see media corruption, and why is it such a problem?

In most cases you cannot see media corruption as it occurs deep within the data of a drive, or within the microchips that control the drive. In USB sticks, for example, media corruption occurs within the chip that controls the connection between the memory stick and the computer. So it is not possible to see (or quantify) the level of media corruption.

With modern mechanical hard drives, it is also very difficult to see corruption. Often, it is only small areas of the drive that see corruption. This small amount often only effects a few user files, but can still be enough to stop a drive being usable.

In severe instances of media corruption, this can affect the “system area” of the drive.

6. System area explained

The system area in a hard drive contains a series of commands which the hard drive needs to access in order to become accessible.

The system area contains information about the drive capacity, model, serial number, and so on.

All mechanical hard drives need to access their system area in order to be usable; so if the system area experiences corruption, it will no longer be recognizable, and hence will be as much use as a brick!

7. Media corruption in older drives

Modern drives have many safeguards against media corruption, although it is impossible to prevent this completely. With older drives, it is actually possible to see corruption when viewing the platters under a microscope; as you can see in the picture below.

8. Corruption: up close and personal

In the photograph below, we can see a magnified image of a platter. The vertical lines show where different sectors of the drive are. These should be intersected with very thin horizontal lines, which divide up the tracks on the platter.

In the picture, we can see the thick lines that are a characteristic of severe media corruption.


Some final thoughts

It is clear that media corruption rarely causes a device to become inoperable, but it is possible. Even with today’s modern drives, severe corruption can result in poor recoveries and in some cases, can render the data completely unrecoverable.

The best way to ensure the safety of your data is to always keep an up-to-date backup.

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