A Cautionary Tale in Data Management

I have 50 gigabytes of x-rated material on my external drive, including photos of a girl wearing my prom dress.

Wait, that may have been the wrong way to start this story. It wasn’t my prom dress.

Last year, I was brought in as an editor to a large project rather late in the planning process. It was so quick that I didn’t get any input on data management. I found out later the first assistant camera guy would be wrangling data and delivering it to me on a USB 2.0 drive. Goodie!

I got my footage (nearly 2TB) and we parted ways. I finished the project and that was the end of that.

Last week, I was archiving things and consolidating down old files to my external drives. I did a Spotlight search for “Lightroom” to make a backup of my catalog. Suddenly, dozens of professional nude portraits popped up in my Finder window. After wondering for a moment if I had forgotten about shooting an intense burlesque studio session, I opened the enclosing folder.

I discovered that it was in a sort of temporary recycling bin directory that had been written to my drive. I never noticed it before because it had previously been hidden. I recently ran a Terminal command to show all my hidden files for a reason I can’t recall, so when this particular folder did appear I thought nothing of it. It’s just a funky looking folder with a random string of letters and numbers.

At first I thought my drive had come to me with this material, which included hundreds of mundane personal files and hundreds more very personal photos. Another directory was even more alarming: a huge stash of adult entertainment, some of it with very graphic names. Trying to figure out if I had somehow gotten a used hard drive or if I crossed paths with this person somehow (despite the fact my hard drive has never left my editing room), I clicked on an image with a safe looking thumbnail.

It was the girl whose iTunes library and portraits had popped up in my Finder. Wearing the same prom dress as me. Um, what?

I went to sleep puzzled about how this got on my hard drive, wondering if the manufacturer had pulled a fast one, and totally weirded out at the prom dress. Seriously, that thing was the only one like it for miles in my area. And the way these files were organized, it seemed like they might have come from separate systems.

The next morning I decided to take a couple screen shots in case I determined I needed to ask the manufacturer “WTF MAN” and jumped into the uh, restricted directory for maximum impact. I noticed a file called “me.jpg” and clicked on it thinking I could at least know if this massive library of restricted material was prom dress girl’s, or if my hard drive somehow had multiple people writing stuff to it before it arrived at my house.

No, wasn’t her. It was a guy in a very colorful pose, showing parts of himself that I didn’t really want to see bright and early in the morning. Or at all.

Wait, he looks familiar.

Oh. Yep. It’s the first assistant camera operator from that shoot last year. But wait, there’s more. More self-portraits and videos.

Yep, just gonna close that and go think about my life.

So here’s what I think happened. Dude had an external drive of his own for the shoot. It also had his big ol’ stash of personal files on it. He put all the stuff on there from the shoot, deleted the personal stuff, and cloned it to the USB 2 drive. Oops, it cloned the deleted files too. Then I cloned that drive to one that has FireWire 800 and eSata so I could actually work with the stuff. Ta da, a lovely surprise.

So what did we learn here, kids? Two major takeaways, really.

First, don’t store your entire personal library of quiet reflective time entertainment on the same drive you’ll be storing footage from a job, especially if you’ll be sharing that drive. Ain’t nothing wrong with some personal entertainment, don’t think I’m judging anyone here. But keep it separate if you’re going to keep it. Personal files of any nature shouldn’t cross paths with work stuff.

And second, nothing is really deleted when you just hit that delete key. If you delete something you really don’t want anyone else seeing without your permission (writings, credit card information, pictures of your wang), it can easily be recovered. So easily that I did it accidentally. Look at the different levels of erasure available when you reformat a hard drive. There are apps you can use to securely delete files — to an extent. If it’s really important, perhaps the best (and most satisfying) way is smashing the drive with a hammer. Most erasures can be cracked by someone, though lower levels of erasure are probably fine when the person isn’t expecting to find any bonus materials anyway.

So that’s why I have 50 gigabytes of restricted material on my hard drive. Maybe what amuses me the most is the additional time this person took to copy an unnecessary 50 gigs over USB 2.

That and the prom dress thing. The prom dress girl is still a bit of a mystery. I’m guessing it’s from the same guy and that he stored her files when they were dating or something. Unfortunate for her that she trusted someone with her stuff that is clearly not great at data management. On the plus side, she was excellent taste in formalwear.