Adam Lanza computer may be salvageable: Data retrieval experts

Kroll expert
An expert at Kroll explains how they recover data from devices.

(CBS News) CBS News reported how Adam Lanza destroyed his computers before he drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday. Investigators say the Newtown gunman did such a thorough job, the FBI has been unable to retrieve any information from those computers.

But CBS News visited one company that might be able to help.

Pictures: Inside the world of data retrieval

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When Hurricane Sandy washed through the Northeast, it soaked thousands of computers. Some of their owners are looking for a miracle from Michael Diomidous. He runs Data Recovery Operations for Kroll, the company now trying to wring out information from those water-logged hard-drives.

Kroll technicians recovered 99 percent of the data from another drive blown into the atmosphere after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. That nearly melted drive sat at the bottom of a Texas lake for six months. They were even successful after 9/11.

CBS News was allowed inside Kroll's operations in Secaucus, N.J., where behind a secured door, that have what's called "The Clean Room." In this space, there are fly-paper floor mats to separate dirt from shoes and HEPA filters to sanitize the air while technicians work.

Diomidous said of his workspace, "If (the hard drives) need to come into the clean room, that's basically the last resort."

Hard drives contain disks or platters where information is stored and electronics that read that information. Diomidous explained, "The read and write heads will store the data on this magnetic platter. Imagine the old record players where the needle will go back and forth and read the songs that we have."

Depending on the model, hard-drives hold on average five disks per cartridge and record data on both sides. Erik Venema, who runs the forensics side of Kroll's operation, said, "It is like a cake. If the top one gets damaged, it may be that we can see the data that the user created on the other platters, which may not be damaged."

A former law enforcement officer, Venema and his team translate the data retrieved as a series of zeroes and ones into a format that most people can understand. They can even fill-in the missing pieces of the puzzle.

Venema said, "So even if somebody deletes a file and it's spread on different places on the hard drive, Kroll's proprietary software will find those bits and pieces and put them back together."

Law enforcement officials examining the computer taken from Lanza's home are hoping to find any clue that can explain his actions. Authorities will be looking for documents, emails, instant messages and any kind of chat or pictures that would involve plans or lists, Venema said.

Asked about Lanza's apparent intent to destroy those drives, Venema said they contain "obviously incriminating evidence, without question."

Reports say the hard drive was smashed to bits, but Venema says there's still an outside chance of recovery. He said, "Even somebody that has the most heinous intent to destroy something might end up missing all the important parts of the drive, just by happenstance or the stress of the situation."

For Michelle Miller's full report, watch the video above.