Expert: Adam Lanza's smashed computers could still yield data

NEWTOWN, CONN. (CBS) -- In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting that claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults, gunman Adam Lanza's destroyed computer is high on the list of potential clues to his motive.
Connecticut State Police have handed the smashed hard drives found in Lanza's mother's home over to the FBI. But according to people who have been working with the drives, CBS News' John Miller reports, they were so badly damaged that authorities will face a significant challenge retrieving information.
Flashback Data, which is not working on the case, is a company that specializes in data recovery and computer forensics. David McGroty, director of forensics operations, tells CBS News that it's not simply a matter of whether or not the hard drives were smashed. Where a computer drive is broken is crucial to data recovery.
"One of the things that cause data to not be recovered is to see if the disk can be re-aligned," McGroty said.
"Some electronics on the bottom could be smashed," McGroty said about the parts on the bottom of a drive, "but it could be matched and replaced to make the drive work."
The worst-case scenario, McGroty says, is if the "platters that hold the data either made of ceramic of metal. Ceramics struck with a hammer will shatter. Obviously that is a game over."
McGroty tells CBS News that the best-case scenario will be if the hard drive was hammered from the outside, but there was no damage on the platter.
Retrieving data from Lanza's computer might give insight into the gunman's behavior or plans, leading up to the shooting.
Lanza appeared to have left little to no digital footprint. He apparently had no easily searchable profiles on Facebook or Twitter. There is always the possibility that he used an alias for all of his online activities.
What has puzzled many is how a man who was reported as being into computers could have no trace online.
Paul Steinmetz, spokesman for Western Connecticut State University, told the Associated Press that that Lanza earned an "A" in a computer class.
According to the AP, Lanza also belonged to a technology club at Newtown High School that held "LAN parties." Short for local area network, a LAN party is a small network of computers, usually in one of the members' homes, that are hooked up to play video games.
"From a forensics standpoint, the biggest thing that comes up is that most teenagers or young adults watch Netflix, watch shows or play video games," McGroty said of Lanza's possible digital footprint.
If investigators can find what service's Lanza used, they could potentially unlock his Web history. McGroty says, for example, if he was using an Android phone, police could subpoena Google to access his Gmail. There are some things that can't be erased because the data is held by a third party.
"It's difficult to live in a modern world without leaving footprints," McGroty says. "Even if you're clever, you're still going to eventually Google something. Over time you do leave these traces out there."
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