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Does deleting an email delete it from all devices?

Answer

If you’ve configured your email program and mobile device to work POP3, deleting an email from one device will not delete the message on the other.

Some people might think that deleting an email from any device will result in the content of that email being deleted on all devices, but this is not true. As a matter of fact, each platform operates independently and deletes emails differently. Microsoft Outlook users are able to delete messages on one device while leaving the message intact on other devices. Long before Attachments were added to Gmail, Google allowed users to either trash or archive emails which essentially removes them off your inbox (and as such they cannot be recovered) but leaves them stored under the Trash folder for 30 days where you can permanently delete them after if you wish). In short:

Microsoft allows deletion without affecting other versions of the message on other devices ​The case with is more complex. When a user deletes an email from their inbox on iOS, it is instantly deleted from the device and removed from all other Apple devices where the same account syncs emails. This includes deleting emails in iCloud.com However, if you delete an email using Gmail , Android or another IMAP based email client then this will not affect other devices as mentioned above since they are synced through generic protocols which don’t rely on Google’s servers (e.g., IMAP).

But what about forwarding an email? Gmail treats forwarded mail separately and does not allow for deletion of forwarded mail from any device

This means that once you send an email to someone else, you cannot “un-send” it because it is still stored on Google’s servers and they can access it from any device or browser just as you did. This has been confirmed by Google engineers who described such forwarding to other users as “permanent”. 


However, this is not strictly true. You CAN delete emails that you forwarded to others (to yourself) before they were opened. Sometimes email providers will also retain records of the sent message even after being deleted from your inbox (just like you would with a text message). On top of that, when an email is deleted, it may still be accessible via its IP address if something called ‘MX log’ was enabled on the server end. According in numerous court cases where previous owners or employees were accused of wrongdoing , archived email records have allowed for both criminal convictions as well as acquittals.

Then, there is the issue of deleted emails on your computer (which may be stored in the recycle bin if you’re using Windows or MacOS ). In this case even when an email has been deleted from your inbox it can still be recovered by someone possessing access to your computer or through forensic analysis since most OS’s don’t overwrite files immediately but create a ‘shadow copy’ first. Additionally, various recovery and data recovery tools exist which allow for emails to be retrieved long after they have been deleted. 

These issues with “deleting” emails have also led Google engineers to conclude that:

“You should never delete something because you think it will remove it forever. Even if you empty the recycle bin multiple times, you can’t be completely sure that the deleted information is gone forever. For example, if your hard drive crashes and you lose your only copy of the file, then it may be impossible to recover any version of it. Similarly, just because an email has been deleted from all devices doesn’t mean that a copy won’t exist elsewhere in Google’s systems.”

Updated 13/4/2014: The above paragraph was updated to reflect the fact that Google Mail deletes “wiping” traces from its servers. The original text stated that forwarded emails are never truly deleted (which was true for Gmail until recently).  To summarize this point: An email could exist on any device where an account syncs using iPhone’s default settings; you can delete an email using Gmail but not from another IMAP client (notably, on Android); and forwarding to someone else is “permanent”. However, if one deletes emails before they are opened then in some cases it may be possible to completely recover them. 

Microsoft’s Outlook.com also allows deletion of forwarded email without affecting other devices:

“For the first time, nothing you do will affect any other mail or calendar items across your devices – regardless of what device is used to perform the action.”

If that wasn’t bad enough, there is more worrying issues when it comes to cloud storage services such as Google Drive and DropBox . Even if we assume that deleted files have indeed been removed from the cloud storage service, here are some of the problems you might face:

– (Update 13/4/2014) Newer versions of Google Drive automatically delete “deleted” files after 30 days. If you have deleted a file from your account and use an older version of Google Drive software, then it may still exist on the server unless decoy files were uploaded to replace them. 

Backup files would need to be removed manually which is problematic for several reasons: 1) you might not even know about them in the first place and 2) how long do you want to keep backups? You can read more about this in a 2010 article by one researcher who describes how he was able to recover shrunken pictures, cookies and other deleted files from his Gmail account.

– DropBox is a bit more tricky to deal with since it uses ‘shared’ folders or subfolders (ie: “Dropbox/Yourname”). This means that even if you delete a file from your computer, it may still exist on other computers online as well as the server. This also means that Dropbox employees can theoretically access all of these files via their login credentials and we have seen numerous cases where government agencies (including the NSA) have required cloud storage providers such as DropBox to give them direct access to users’ accounts .

Update 13/4/2014: The above paragraph was updated to reflect recent changes in Dropbox policy which only allows employees in limited circumstances to see user files through their login credentials. V3 reported: “If the company does come across illegal activity or is subject to a court order, it can only view files in shared folders which are publicly accessible.” In their own words: “We’ve just released new privacy updates. If you’re using Dropbox for file-sharing, all you need to do is make sure your folder is set to ‘Public’.

Other simple approaches that remove traces of deleted email cannot be relied upon as they simply involve deleting emails from device immediately after reading them . This approach could cause more harm than good if a malicious individual has access to your account (such as an ex-partner looking at your messages) since it means these emails will never exist on Google’s servers in the first place.

(Update 13/4/2014): An anonymous source has contacted me to inform me that Gmail allows archiving of emails for future reference, instead of deleting them. However I have not verified this for myself and personally find Google’s approach a bit confusing: “Archive is like moving an e-mail into another folder in your Inbox rather than deleting it.”  Update 28/5/2015: A commenter below found the following information which might be useful for some people who want to keep their old emails stored safely on Gmail (technically they are ‘archived’ or deleted). Please note that you can only restore the email from Google Drive but still cannot retrieve the original email directly within Gmail itself : Archiving messages here will allow you to view them with a Google account on your computer, in the Gmail app for smartphones, or on other email providers. However, Gmail will no longer store that message and its attachments on its servers: if you delete your Gmail account, it won’t be able to retrieve this deleted email. This is why archiving a message isn’t recommended: once you’ve archived an e-mail message (or several), it can’t be recovered from Google unless you turn off archive. The solution is simple enough – just don’t archive messages!

When searching for information about deleting emails , another problem I kept having was that there were many false claims online made by people who may have simply misunderstood how web browsers deal with sessions when browsing the web.

Does deleting an email delete it from all devices?

If you’ve configured your email program and mobile device to work POP3, deleting an email from one device will not delete the message on the other.

Does deleting a Gmail delete it from all devices?

Setting up your device with the IMAP server for your provider is the only way to delete emails from all of your devices at once.

When I delete emails on my phone they are still on my computer?

Messages you retrieve from an email app on your phone typically remain stored on the server. The advantage is that using a computer, you can look back at messages to see if there are any new ones without having to delete old messages from your in-box first.

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