What is a Mail Server – Is Email Secure, And Can You Really Wipe a Server ‘Clean’?


Home / What is a Mail Server – Is Email Secure, And Can You Really Wipe a Server ‘Clean’?

Permanently removing data from a drive can be problematic, to say the least. Copyright image by Decoded Science, all rights reserved.

The news is full of talk about Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton’s private mail server, classified information, and insecurity. The server, recently turned over to the Justice Department, contained classified information, but was ‘wiped clean,’ according to the campaign.

In this day and age of low privacy expectations, sending work-related email via computer doesn’t seem that unusual – but as anyone who’s had their email (or Facebook account) hacked can tell you, the Internet isn’t a secure place. Why would a private email server be less secure than, say, a secured government account – and is it really possible to ‘wipe’ a server completely clean?

What is a Mail Server?

A mail server is basically a virtual Post Office. Most people use mail servers that belong to hosts such as Google (gmail), Yahoo, Microsoft (hotmail), or any of the other free email address providers. If you have your own website, you may have email that comes with your own domain name, such as [email protected] – but that email is usually still hosted on the general server that holds your website. You may also have your own server, hosted by a local Internet Service Provider, data management company, or even located at your own home – although that’s rare, considering the environmental and other requirements for server racks.

Regardless of where your email is hosted, you can access it via computer programs such as Outlook, or even online via your Gmail interface by entering in the server information, general settings, and your username and password. Then, when you type up an email and address it, and click ‘Send,’ the program sends the email to the email server you have designated.

Your mail server then ‘looks’ at the email and ‘decides’ what mail server out there on the Internet should receive it, based on the addressee’s email address. After the originating mail server sends the mail to the receiving mail server, the receiving mail server ‘looks’ at the email, ‘decides’ which account to send it to, and there’s the new email in the Inbox of the recipient. (This can also take place within a local network, for example within an office building, and if the local network is not connected to the Internet in any way, would be secure from outside intrusion as the email would be handled by only one mail server.)

Along the way, the servers save the email to memory… which makes sending classified information via regular email a problem, since regular mail servers aren’t meant to accept or store classified information.

That means both the unclassified mail server that sent the email is contaminated, and the unclassified mail server that received the email is contaminated. Not to mention any computers that accessed the email. (Unclassified networks and classified networks are not connected – the only way classified information can be transmitted via unclassified networks is when someone physically carries it to, or enters it into an unclassified computer – you can’t accidentally ‘forward’ a classified email to an unclassified computer.)

Physically destroying the drive (these are shredded) is the only way to be completely sure that all classified information is unavailable. Image courtesy of Texas.gov

‘Cleaning’ or ‘Wiping’ Hard Drives

So, logically, we can deduce that there is classified information on at least two unclassified servers out there – is it possible to clean those servers? (Otherwise known as ‘sanitizing’ the computers.)

There is a process by which you can sanitize computers that have been ‘contaminated’ with classified information – and it usually ends with physically crushing or otherwise destroying the drives, and rendering them unrecognizable, as well as unreadable.

In this case, that clearly didn’t happen, as the intact servers have been handed over to the Justice Department. Why is it necessary to crush or even shred a drive that has classified data, instead of just deleting the files?

Permanently Deleting Computer Files

When you delete a file from a computer, you’re usually not actually deleting the file – you’re just deleting the front-facing parts of the file that you can see. The record itself remains on the hard drive, waiting to be overwritten by other data. That’s why data recovery services are able to pull up so much information from damaged or ‘accidentally deleted’ files in computer drives.

That’s also what makes really cleaning off a drive so difficult – particularly if it’s a large amount of storage, such as a mail server. That’s a lot of space to overwrite with repetitions of 1 and 0, and a lot of space to check for any data that may have accidentally remained.

Mail Servers Wiped?

Is it possible that these servers are really well-and-truly wiped of all data? Only time – and a robust data recovery effort – will tell us for sure.

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