File Error: Your Nightmare Data Loss Stories

So much of our personal and professional lives are stored in digital format these days. Family photos, important documents, work presentations, emails - you name it. So when that data goes kaput, be it through hardware failure or human error, it can be devastating. We recently asked our readers to share their worst experiences from losing your precious data. Here are some of the best (worst) ones.

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Cock-Ups At Work

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riskgambits: I previously worked as a assistant network administrator for an accountant business, from time to time the IT manager would get work experience kids in and dump them on me. I usually get them to do busy work, clean out the server room, audit computers, etc... One of the jobs I usually get them to do is image new Windows machines for deployment. I would run them through the process of prepping a machine, running through a check list of the software need to be install, how to create images for the different departments and then mass deploy machines using a previously build company image.   The company was small and didn't invest in a proper deployment software, so we were using a simple backup and restore process to deploy the machines from an external hard disk drive (HDD). Anyway I showed the work experience kid how to image the machine, I supervised the second one and left him to do the rest, being nearby if he needed me. After I left he came to grab me saying it wasn't working anymore. He managed to deploy the image onto the external HDD, erasing all the current copies of the company's images. I spent the next few days re-creating new images for every department.

djorkboy: It was my first month working in IT. I had to reinstall Windows for one of the girls in the finance dept. I backed up all the data, being super careful to check for archaic financial software that loads onto the root of the C drive. Had the user check as well. After the install I went back to my desk and almost immediately the phone rang.   "How do I get back into my DOS partition?" I answered this question with a question of my own, "What DOS partition?"   Turns out the finance department had some really old custom DOS software they used and the only copy happened to be on a dedicated partition on that computer. I had never even considered checking for something like that. I went back and tried to restore the data but it had been cleanly overwritten by the new Windows install. As I walked away from the cubicle after telling her the data was unrecoverable I heard the girl start to cry.   She was demoted, nearly fired and left a few months later. Part of her written job description was to back up the DOS software daily and store a copy in the safe. She hadn't done so for more than a year.   I was never reprimanded, criticised or even questioned about it and I still feel bad today, almost 15 years later.

schwolop: I run a small business that uses a cluster of twelve Raspberry PIs to drive all the hardware within an interactive entertainment venue. I have a series of scripts that let them pull down the latest software builds, switch to a development version, and the like. I then use a utility called "distributed shell" to broadcast commands to the entire cluster that prompt them to all simultaneously run one of these scripts.   This set has a lot of upsides, but there's a pretty clear risk here so I always test things out first on a machine that's outside this cluster. Sometimes these scripts need to run in user-space, and sometimes they run at boot as a root user to change machine-wide configuration variables and the like. To help with this, I had one script that would repair file permissions and ownership on any files checked out of a repository by the wrong user. I'd made a few changes to the scripts that pulled down files to allow them to switch between versions more easily, and I'd checked the changes on my testing machine and it all worked.   Confident in the changes, I put the new script onto each machine in the cluster, then broadcast the new command to them all. Unfortunately I'd neglected one vital thing: to first set an environment variable holding the existing version in use. My fancy new script quite happily changed directory to "${EXISTING_VERSION_DIR}/" and proceeded to "sudo chown -R user:user *" to ensure the file ownership was correct. The Linux sysadmins in the room will already be grimacing, but for the benefit of everyone else: when you add a "/" to the end of a non-existent environment variable, you just get plain old "/". And in Linux, that's the root directory of the entire hard drive.   Not only had I managed to change the ownership of every single file on the entire computer to a user that wasn't logged in, (and now couldn't because the commands to login and change user weren't accessible to it), I'd also managed to ensure every single machine in my entire cluster had just executed the same fatal mistake. And then of course, like any good engineer I wanted to know how I'd made such a mistake, so I retraced my steps carefully, and wiped out my testing machine too...   The only silver linings to this horrible tale are that I *did* have a recent image saved, so restoring all thirteen machines was at least possible. I've also learnt my lesson and there are now a lot more checks and balances to prevent anyone doing this again!

enteng011: I run a small business and use a laptop back and forth from work and my home office. All my files were automatically backed up onto a NAS as soon as I went home and also backup into an external HDD when I go into the office.   When my laptop's HDD failed I tried to recover the files from the NAS and during the recovery of files the NAS drive decided to fail also! Though it was frustrating, I wasn't worried since there was another backup that was on the HDD at the office. The next morning, I went into work, ready to recover the lost files, and to my luck it also failed.   From all the failed drives, I managed to lose all my work files and also 10 years worth of photos and archive. That incident is now referred to as the CRASH of 07.

An Educational Experience/Lessons Learned

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troysimp:I was part of a team of 6 people responsible for writing an 800,000-word encyclopedia. My expertise is in researching, writing, and editing — NOT in information technology or computers.   Anyway, the team pooled our work on to a "shared drive". I guess I never fully appreciated the concept of *shared* drive.   One day, I uploaded all my own work to the shared drive. Months of work. But, in doing so, I accidentally deleted everyone else's work that was saved on the shared drive. That work included the writings of 3 professors and 2 other researchers.   As I saw the contents of the shared drive being replaced with only my own files and folders, I did wonder for a minute if I was doing the right thing; but I secured myself in thinking, "Well, the IT team will have a backup anyway". So, I proceeded.   The outcome? I had overwritten (i.e. effectively deleted and lost forever) months of hard work from all my colleagues.   Due to some exquisite accidental timing, the only files that were backed-up were my own. Every other team member's work had been lost. Permanently.   I wasn't very popular from that moment on.

lars06: I was in the middle of an engineering team project at uni with a group of six guys. We had a final report for the semester (which was worth 25%). The document was editable in iCloud Drive, and we were pretty much finished. Then I made the mistake of deleting the file as I thought it was an old draft. Turns out iCloud Drive didn't have data recovery at that point, so we had to start from scratch. Needless to say, we didn't get 25% of the course marks, but I did get a lot more than 25% of hate from my team members!

vibrationtapes: During my PhD we had a team of students and academics working on a big physics study for over a year, involving complex videos taken of micron sized patterns, very long and time consuming processes. Throughout the year we had gathered many terabytes of videos. The videos were labelled in a systematic way, and the experimental info was stored on a excel file, meaning that without the excel file all the data was essentially meaningless for analysis.   While we made regular and multiple backups of the video files, which took a long long time with all that data, we didn't think so hard about backing up the key file.   And I was in charge of keeping track of the excel key file.   As you can imagine what happened next, in a stupid move one day when i was cleaning up my computer i managed somehow to delete the file, rendering the whole years work meaningless.   There was no recovery and i was very unpopular. It also put back mine (and others) graduations by over a year.   At least the second time around it was a little quicker to do and I made backups of everything regularly.

yekwah: During the first year of my computational biology PhD, I was still getting my head around the command line. The supercomputer that we ran all our analyses on generated two files from each analysis job - a .o standard output file and a .e standard error file. I was trying to clean up my folders as I had thousands of these standard error files. I typed 'rm *e*' .... and forgot the all important dot. As a result, I lost every file that had an 'e' in the file name. This included all of the evolutionary tree files I had spent months on, some of which took weeks to generate on the supercomputer. I then remember being horrified to discover that UNIX has no recycle bin, and doubly horrified when I realised that I had not backed up many of those files. This small typo set me back weeks in my PhD.   Needless to say, I now backup my PhD work every day, and do 'ls' before 'rm' to make sure I'm deleting only what I want to delete!

Unfortunate Accidents

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Neon Jackal: Once my brother deleted my Legend of Zelda save file, but the silver lining is I really enjoy being an only child now.

thatsmartdude: My story happened about a year and a half ago. I had recently purchased a NAS and had bought 4x2TB hard disks to hold all of my old photos and home movies (and my iTunes purchases). On this particular night, there was a major storm going on and my house kept losing power. After the power outages stopped, I discovered that my NAS had died (the power supply was fried) and 3 of the disks had died (they just didn't work). Luckily I still had one 2TB drive that worked, right? WRONG - the data on the last disk was all corrupted.   I had the original photos and videos on the SD cards still, but I lost around $500 worth of data storage in one night. To make matters worse, I had to pay for a new power supply for the NAS because I was an idiot and forgot to register the NAS under warranty :/

hakt0r: My horror story is that of a saga with Segate's notorious 3TB drives (desktop backup SotragePlus drives). Last year when I lost 9TB of my precious data comprising of 1. my wedding pics, pics from my first born, starting from year 2000 onwards 2. I started a new business and all my client'd data and many of my client's server virtual machines (VMs) or VM images, vital to their business and mine. 3. my iTunes purchases and all my music, home movies and DVD (ripped and purchased over iTunes). 4. emails and documents, especially financial information.   the most stressful time of my life. The best part of that story is that I was running redundant backups and the 5TB drive used for Time Machine backup also failed (Seagate once again).   All the drives featured a death-click-click sound when the drives were plugged into the computers. I went and purchased some expensive software to salvage information and I was able to recover some but I am missing about 4 years of our life's worth of pictures (and a lost wedding), home movies.   All my client and business information was lost never to be recovered. It took me 2 months to get back online, slowly installing and recovering information, piecing it by calling up clients and begging for extensions or redoing their lost work at my cost.   Seagate offered a peace offering and replaced all my drives for free and their support was excellent, but too little too late.   I still run backups, Time machine and manual (using scripts) to different drives (from different manufacturers) but its all manual and I cant seem to find a software that works and obviously Acronis is something I looked at but its expensive, especially when I am the business.   I still have nightmares and I think I have managed to get a handle on the backup scene but I wish it was easier. :-(

harro2400: It was probably about 8-10 years ago, my housemate and I had amassed about a terabyte of media on a NAS, being somewhat poor we had an old IKEA cupboard we had the ADSL Router in and the NAS along with a few other things and had taken the doors off for airflow, it was effective but well not the best solution... one day my father was at the house fixing a number for us while we were at work and i get home to a note from him with everything he fixed and this roaring noise coming from the hall like a thousand jet engines... suffice to say he had re attached the doors to the cabinet and being a 35 degree day with no air conditioning on all day pretty much everything was dead... we had no internet and no TV shows, movies, photos lost the lot unless it was on our PC at the time until that moment i had never really thought of the need to have a back-up for the NAS now I always run a redundant raid array in a well ventilated space...

Adrian Mace: You never know the importance of backups until you suffer catastrophic data failure.   Not catastrophic per-se, and not exactly data loss either because I knew exactly where it went. It had been overwritten, and 'it' was my parents' wedding photos taken with the first digital point and shoot we owned. The culprit? My younger brother and MS Paint. It turns out he didn't like our new step-dad very much, and being 7 years old and pretty good with computers he decided to express his disdain in a creative way.   This is the only image that remains from that day, titled "THE MARY OF DEATH.jpg".

Terrible Friends

Adam: Mine happened in the days of Windows 95. I was fixing a computer for a friend. and back in those days, that meant formatting drive and reinstalling Windows. So I plugged his Hard drive into my machine Moved all his data he wanted to keep. Ran fdisk utility and promptly fdisked my hard drive with all his data and my data on it. From that day on I have always named my drives.

codygirdlestone: While explaining to my (at the time) girlfriends friend about backing up data I went to give her a spare external HDD. When I went to format it I realised I accidentally formatted my backup drive which contained every photo we had of our relationship up until then.

djorkboy: It was 1991, I had no idea about computers but looked like the kind of person who did.   My first date with this girl was going well, so well we went back to her place. She wanted to show me an assignment she had just completed. Her first assignment, first year of her law degree. She was very proud of her work. It was due the next day.   I read the assignment while she went upstairs to "slip into something more comfortable". She asked me to shut down the computer when I was done reading.   I knew nothing about Winchester hard drives or about "parking" the hard drive to move the heads away from the surface before powering down to stop them colliding with the disk platter and destroying data.   About 10 minutes later when my date came downstairs and tried to fire up the computer to show me a draft of her next assignment I learned about parking hard drives.   The date progressed no further. She never spoke to me again.


    Reminds me of some harsh advice one of my lecturers gave me and my class mates in our first year: "Those who don't backup their data deserve to lose it."

    Though truth be told that doesn't always work either as these stories show.

    In some of the stories it seems people confuse a backup drive with a storage drive. "And I wiped my backup" well you should still have the original copies the backup was made from.

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