Latent data refers to the information stored in computers that you can’t see via the operating system (OS) or standard programs installed. It is also known as “ambient data.” It includes the information that gets left on a computer by deleted files, swap files, print spooler files, memory dumps, the slack space of existing files, and temporary cache.

Computers use latent data to recover files lost due to user errors, unexpected program operations, or malicious activity, such as ransomware infection. Computer forensics experts also use the hidden information to retrieve deleted files but doing so requires using special software.

Other interesting terms…

Read More about a “Latent Data”

We mentioned several types of computer information that are considered latent data earlier. Let’s define each of them.

What Files Are Considered Latent Data?

The five kinds of files stored on computers below are considered latent data.

Swap File

Swap files contain data retrieved from a computer’s system or random-access memory (RAM). They are virtual in nature since they are not stored in physical RAM. How did they get their name?

When a computer runs, the amount of available memory gets extended by swapping memory used by idle processes from the RAM to a swap file.

Print Spooler File

Print spooler files are executables that manage the printing process. They retrieve the location of the correct printer driver, load that driver, spool high-level function calls into a print job, schedule a print job, and so on.

Memory Dump

A memory dump displays and stores the contents of a computer’s memory when an application or the entire system crashes. It helps software developers and system administrators diagnose, identify, and resolve the problem that led to the application or system failure.

A memory dump is also known as a “core dump” or the “blue screen of death (BSoD)” on Windows-based computers.

Slack Space

Slack space is what is left in the storage on a computer’s hard disk drive (HDD) when a file does not need all the space the OS allocated for it. You can learn more about it here.

Temporary Cache

Programs or a computer’s OS uses temporary cache files to store the last saved version of a document a user is working on. They include the cookies in your browser. When they reach a vast number, they can slow down your computer or cause other problems. That is why temporary cache files should be deleted regularly.

What Is Latent Data Used For?

Latent data is helpful for computer forensics and retrieving files that were accidentally deleted or lost.

Temporary cache files, for instance, can help users recover at least part of a file they accidentally erased from their computers. They can still retrieve the last version of a document, for instance, saved on their computer even if they enabled autosave.

Slack space, meanwhile, is often used by cybercrime investigators to gather information left by deleted files that can serve as clues or evidence for the case they are currently handling. That is precisely why experts say no files are ever truly deleted.

Without print spooler files, printers can’t process all the print jobs lined up for it from various connected computers.

Finally, the memory dump allows users to retrieve as much of their current work despite application and system crashes.

Today, the term “latent data” also refers to the information that IoT devices collect through their sensors. That includes the pictures traffic cameras record that an image processing application uses to count vehicles, the steps people take stored in their fitness trackers, and the temperature readings thermostat sensors collect per minute. All IoT devices collect latent or ambient data, which has led to ambient computing.

What Is Ambient Computing?

Ambient computing is the process where artificial intelligence (AI)-capable computers make decisions without human involvement. AI collects, processes, and analyzes latent or ambient data to determine consumer behavior.

Your mobile phone, for instance, can keep track of what apps you use daily to send you tips and suggested activities at specific times of the day. When you typically open a PDF file at, say, 10:00 A.M. every day, after some time, your phone will alert you at 10:00 A.M. to open that file.

As you’ve seen, although we don’t see latent data on our computers and other tech devices, that doesn’t mean it’s nonexistent and useless. In fact, the more advanced AI gets, the more uses there will be for latent data.