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Why Recovering a Deleted Ext3 File Is Difficult . . .

and why you should back up important files

We have all done it before. You accidentally type in the wrong argument to rm or select the wrong file for deletion. As you hit enter, you notice your mistake and your stomach drops. You reach for the backup of the system and realize that there isn't one.

There are many undelete tools for FAT and NTFS file systems, but there are few for Ext3, which is currently the default file system for most Linux distributions. This is because of the way that Ext3 files are deleted. Crucial information that stores where the file content is located is cleared during the deletion process.

In this article, we take a low-level look at why recovery is difficult and look at some approaches that are sometimes effective. We will use some open source tools for the recovery, but the techniques are not completely automated.

What Is a File?
Before we can see how to recover files, we need to look at how files are stored. Typically, file systems are located inside of a disk partition. The partition is usually organized into 512-byte sectors. When the partition is formatted as Ext3, consecutive sectors will be grouped into blocks, whose size can range from 1,024 to 4,096 bytes. The blocks are grouped together into block groups, whose size will be tens of thousands of blocks. Each file has data stored in three major locations: blocks, inodes, and directory entries. The file content is stored in blocks, which are allocated for the exclusive use of the file. A file is allocated as many blocks as it needs. Ideally, the file will be allocated consecutive blocks, but this is not always possible.

The metadata for the file is stored in an inode structure, which is located in an inode table at the beginning of a block group. There are a finite number of inodes and each is assigned to a block group. File metadata includes the temporal data such as the last modified, last accessed, last changed, and deleted times. Metadata also includes the file size, user ID, group ID, permissions, and block addresses where the file content is stored.

The addresses of the first 12 blocks are saved in the inode and additional addresses are stored externally in blocks, called indirect blocks. If the file requires many blocks and not all of the addresses can fit into one indirect block, a double indirect block is used whose address is given in the inode. The double indirect block contains addresses of single indirect blocks, which contain addresses of blocks with file content. There is also a triple indirect address in the inode that adds one more layer of pointers.

Last, the file's name is stored in a directory entry structure, which is located in a block allocated to the file's parent directory. An Ext3 directory is similar to a file and its blocks contain a list of directory entry structures, each containing the name of a file and the inode address where the file metadata is stored. When you use the ls -i command, you can see the inode address that corresponds to each file name. We can see the relationship between the directory entry, the inode, and the blocks in Figure 1.

When a new file is created, the operating system (OS) gets to choose which blocks and inode it will allocate for the file. Linux will try to allocate the blocks and inode in the same block group as its parent directory. This causes files in the same directory to be close together. Later we'll use this fact to restrict where we search for deleted data.

The Ext3 file system has a journal that records updates to the file system metadata before the update occurs. In case of a system crash, the OS reads the journal and will either reprocess or roll back the transactions in the journal so that recovery will be faster then examining each metadata structure, which is the old and slow way. Example metadata structures include the directory entries that store file names and inodes that store file metadata. The journal contains the full block that is being updated, not just the value being changed. When a new file is created, the journal should contain the updated version of the blocks containing the directory entry and the inode.

Deletion Process
Several things occur when an Ext3 file is deleted from Linux. Keep in mind that the OS gets to choose exactly what occurs when a file is deleted and this article assumes a general Linux system.

At a minimum, the OS must mark each of the blocks, the inode, and the directory entry as unallocated so that later files can use them. This minimal approach is what occurred several years ago with the Ext2 file system. In this case, the recovery process was relatively simple because the inode still contained the block addresses for the file content and tools such as debugfs and e2undel could easily re-create the file. This worked as long as the blocks had not been allocated to a new file and the original content was not overwritten.

With Ext3, there is an additional step that makes recovery much more difficult. When the blocks are unallocated, the file size and block addresses in the inode are cleared; therefore we can no longer determine where the file content was located. We can see the relationship between the directory entry, the inode, and the blocks of an unallocated file in Figure 2.

Recovery Approaches
Now that we know the components involved with files and which ones are cleared during deletion, we can examine two approaches to file recovery (besides using a backup). The first approach uses the application type of the deleted file and the second approach uses data in the journal. Regardless of the approach, you should stop using the file system because you could create a file that overwrites the data you are trying to recover. You can power the system off and put the drive in another Linux computer as a slave drive or boot from a Linux CD.

The first step for both techniques is to determine the deleted file's inode address. This can be determined from debugfs or The Sleuth Kit (TSK). I'll give the debugfs method here. debugfs comes with most Linux distributions and is a file system debugger. To start debugfs, you'll need to know the device name for the partition that contains the deleted file. In my example, I have booted from a CD and the file is located on /dev/hda5:

# debugfs /dev/hda5
debugfs 1.37 (21-Mar-2005)

We can then use the cd command to change to the directory of the deleted file:

debugfs: cd /home/carrier/

The ls -d command will list the allocated and deleted files in the directory. Remember that the directory entry structure stores the name and the inode of the file and this listing will give us both values because neither is cleared during the deletion process. The deleted files have their inode address surrounded by "<" and ">":

debugfs: ls -d
415848 (12) . 376097 (12) .. 415864 (16) .bashrc
<415926> (28) oops.dat

More Stories By Brian Carrier

Brian Carrier has authored several leading computer forensic tools, including The Sleuth Kit (formerly The @stake Sleuth Kit) and the Autopsy Forensic Browser. He has authored several peer-reviewed conference and journal papers and has created publicly available testing images for forensic tools. Currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Computer Science and Digital Forensics at Purdue University, he is also a research assistant at the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security
(CERIAS) there. He formerly served as a research scientist at @stake and as the lead for the @stake Response Team and Digital Forensic Labs. Carrier has taught forensics, incident response, and file systems at SANS, FIRST, the @stake Academy, and SEARCH. He is the author of File System Forensic Analysis (Addison-Wesley, ISBN 0321268172).

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