Vlad Ioan Topan

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Recovering data from a dead Windows (NTFS) disk using Linux

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At some point in your IT-enthusiast life you must’ve had at least one dead HDD, off of which Windows wouldn’t boot anymore. Up until a while ago, particularly if the partitions were formatted with NTFS, the situation was pretty much hopeless. Nowadays, with very-much-improved NTFS support under Linux (and rather tolerant to faults compared to its native counterpart under Windows), it isn’t always so. If the HDD is in a “coma” (i.e. almost dead, but not still “sort of” kicking), booting off a Linux live CD might still help recover (some of) the data. Basic steps:

  1. Get a Linux live CD distribution which has good built in NTFS support (most of them have basic support by now) and ddrescue
  2. Boot off the live CD and use ddrescue to get a binary image of each partition or mount the partition(s) and copy the files to a safe place
  3. [If using the dd(rescue) approach] mount the images as drives under Windows and copy the files or be brave and mount the partition in a VM and try to actually boot it, at least as far as a command prompt (safe mode) or use a backup/partitioning tool to write the images to another disk

If you’re not paranoid about security (by nature or by job description), i.e. you don’t use EFS for your most sensitive data, you’re pretty much off the hook. If you’ve made the punishable-by-huge-amounts-of-pain mistake of using EFS and your disk crashed, as is my case, hope is as dimmed as the foresight of the folks who designed NTFS and used more than the actual user password to encrypt the data. As it turns out, to decrypt the files you need a certificate which can only be generated on the machine which encrypted the files, which is

Linux live CDs with NTFS support

I’ve tried SystemRescueCd, Trinity Rescue Kit, RIP Linux and plain vanilla Knoppix, and Trinity Rescue Kit appears to be the best: it has ntfstools / Linux-NTFS installed, and it didn’t hang on boot because of the failing HDD (other distros did). As a sidenote, I haven’t managed to boot the GUI (X) of any of the distros, as my laptop monitor/graphics card seems to be uncooperative with the standard drivers/VESA mode, but apart from the visual partition manager, everything works fine from the console anyway.

When choosing a distro, the main points to check are if it has the ntfs-3g driver (as recent a version as possible, as it keeps getting better at a fast pace) and the ntfstools / Linux-NTFS suite I mentioned earlier, especially if you’ve used EFS to encrypt your data (in which case the only viable solution appears to be ntfsdecrypt from that suite, which needs the certificate with which the files were encrypted, which in it’s turn needs you to boot the (dead) machine, but it appears to be the only way to get the data back).

Using dd/ddrescue to recover (NTFS) partitions

dd / ddrescue

The tool to move binary data from one place to another under Linux is dd. It also has a data-recovery-oriented cousin called ddrescue, which basically does the same thing, but is more fault-tolerant.
Basic dd usage:

dd if=/source of=/destination

if stands for input file and of for output file, and neither of them has to be an actual file (in the Windows sense); in the above example, /dev/sda1 is the first partition on the sda disk.
To back up just the MBR of the disk (the first 512 bytes) use:

dd if=/dev/sda of=/mnt/sdb1/saved/mbr.bin bs=512 count=1

This assumes that source disk is sda and that sdb1 is the partition to which you want to back up the data, so in your particular case they may need to be changed. See the next section if you’re not sure which disk is mapped to which name.
ddrescue uses fixed-position input (first) and output (second) arguments:

ddrescue -v /source /destination

The -v option makes ddrescue verbose (i.e. periodically print progress).
Note: by default, dd prints no progress/info until it’s job is finished. To check up on it’s progress, open another console (the terminals are mapped to Alt+N shortcuts in Linux, N >= 1, usually up to 4) and send it the USR1 signal. To do that, first you need to find it’s PID using ps:

ps -A|grep dd

Then, assuming the PID of the dd process is 3456, use kill:

kill -USR1 3456

That won’t actually kill the process, in spite of it’s name; it will just send it the USR1 signal, which makes dd print it’s current status (switch to the dd terminal to see it). The command’s name (“kill”) comes from it’s most frequent usage, which is to send a process the KILL signal (i.e. “kill” it).

Linux drive mapping

Linux maps your disks under /dev with names following the (“regex-like”) pattern [hs]d[abcd]. An h prefix means an (older) IDE disk, meanwhile an s prefix means a serial disk (usually an internal SATA or external USB disk). The individual partitions follow the disk naming + a digit to designate the partition number. So, for example, if you have a SATA disk with two partitions, the disk would be /dev/sda, the first partition would be /dev/sda1 and the second partition /dev/sda2.
To see the available disks/partitions, use ls (the Linux equivalent of dir):

ls /dev/sd*
ls /dev/hd*

To get extended disk info, use hdparm:

hdparm -I /dev/sda

The disks (actually the partitions) found under /dev need to be mounted before the files on them can be read/written; up until that point they are just huge blobs of binary data.

Note: for the rest of this writing, for simplicity’s sake, I’ll assume that sda is the broken disk and it has wto partitions, and that the recovered files/image go to sdb.

There are two ways to mount NTFS partitions: either using the default NTFS driver which comes with mount (ignores many problems, doesn’t care if Windows was improperly stopped & the drive was left “unclean”, read-only mode by default) or the ntfs-3g driver (more sensitive, read-write by default). Use the plain mount for the broken disk and the ntfs-3g version for the drives to which you need read-write access.
First off, you need to make appropriate folders for the partitions to be mounted under; standard practice is to do it under the /mnt folder. e.g.:

mkdir /mnt/sda1
mkdir /mnt/sda2
mkdir /mnt/sdb1

Note that the /mnt folder may not exist, in which case it must be created first: mkdir /mnt
Next, mount partitions from the broken disk (read-only):

mount /dev/sda1 /mnt/sda1
mount /dev/sda2 /mnt/sda2

The syntax of the mount command is straight-forward: mount /what /where; /what is the device, /where is the mount point in the filesystem. It takes other arguments, such as -t type to set the filesystem type, but NTFS is (nowadays) recognized automatically. The naming convention for the mount points is at your choice (you could mount the thing on something like /my/broken/disk/partition/number/1), but sticking to the “standard” /mnt path and using the original device’s name (or the partition letter if you’re more accustomed to that and a lazy typist, such as /mnt/c) is easier, and the help you find on the net will make more sense.
Last step in the mount process: mounting the destination disk in read-write mode (default for ntfs-3g):

ntfs-3g /dev/sdb1 /mnt/sdb1


mount -t ntfs-3g /dev/sdb1 /mnt/sdb1

The syntax is similar to the mount command; to check if the distro you chose has the ntfs-3g command built in, simply try to run it. If it doesn’t, choose another distro.

Copying the data

Run either dd or ddrescue (the latter is preferred if the disk is only partially readable):

dd if=/dev/sda1 of=/mnt/sdb1/saved/part1.bin


ddrescue -n /dev/sdb1 /mnt/sdb1/saved/part1.bin

WARNING: pay attention not to pass as the destination to dd/ddrescue entire disks unless you actually want their contents overwritten (which will be the case when you restore the saved image to a new disk); be sure to add a file name otherwise. The -n option prevents ddrescue from retrying error areas, which is usually what you want. If you have a disk which does yield data after enough retries, don’t use it.

Mounting the (NTFS) partition(s) from Linux/Windows

You can mount the newly backed-up partitions from Linux using the loop feature:

mount -o loop /mnt/sdb1/saved/part1.bin /mnt/part1

The partition can also be mounted directly from Windows using the ImDisk Virtual Disk Driver (free) or using some rather expensive commercial tools (google for alternatives).

Backing up/restoring partitions/whole disks

Alternatively, you can use the dd command to copy the entire disk and write the image to a fresh (identical) disk. Writing an image to a partition/disk using dd simply requires passing the disk as the of argument:
Restoring a partition:

dd if=/mnt/sdb1/saved/part1.bin of=/dev/sdc1

Restoring an entire disk:

dd if=/mnt/sdb1/saved/whole-disk.bin of=/dev/sdc

WARNING: be careful when overwriting raw partition/disk contents; choose other recovery methods unless you understand exactly what you’re doing.

Recovering files from raw data/deleted files: data carving

If the partition table/NTFS structure is broken and you can’t mount the partitions but you can read the binary data, you can use TestDisk to recover some of the files (the ones with a specific structure, such as images and music, are more likely to be found as opposed to, say, plain text files). This is basically the same thing that file recovery programs (such as Recuva) do on the unused space of a disk to recover deleted files.

Recovering EFS encrypted files

As I’ve mentioned in the opening paragraph, to recover EFS encrypted files, even under Linux, you need a recovery certificate. If you don’t have one, EFS file recovery software might help, but I’ve had little luck using them. I know of no open source/free software which does that, so you’ll probably have to use commercial software such as Advanced EFS Data Recovery from ElcomSoft (demo version available). The link called “encrypted file system recovery” from the following section details the process of manually extracting the required information for EFS recovery.

Further reading

Moral of the story

  • ALWAYS BACK UP YOUR IMPORTANT DATA. Seriously. Now. Go get some storage space (USB flash drive, external hard disk, even DVDs if you make a new one often enough, as they tend not to last very long) and copy your data on it. GO!
  • Don’t use EFS under NTFS. Use an alternative encryption solution, e.g. TrueCrypt. There are portable (i.e. works-from-flash-drive) editions of most encryption tools should the need arise, and they are reliable (I’ve used TrueCrypt without problems for quite a while now).
  • If you MUST use EFS, create a recovery certificate using CIPHER /R:filename (details here) and store it in a safe place.

Written by vtopan

November 15, 2009 at 11:51 PM

One Response

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  1. Hi

    When using ddrescue, you should use a logfile to log the progress. If you need to re-run the command because of some reason, ddrescue will skip the successful parts and just concentrate on non-rescued parts of the hdd


    March 19, 2014 at 12:53 PM

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