This hoax has been around for years, don’t delete System32 folder

Copyright AFP 2017-2021. All rights reserved.

A meme shared thousands of times on Facebook tells users that their incognito browsing histories are stored in a folder called System32, and suggests deleting it. This, however, is a hoax. Experts warn that if you delete the folder, your Windows operating system will no longer function properly.

“Did you know that… your incognito mode browsing history is stored in system32 folder. To be safe, delete it,” reads the meme -- along with an icon of the folder and a spy-like image associated with Google’s privacy mode.

One Facebook post shared on June 20, 2020, includes the meme, with a caption that reads: “Thank me later!!”.

A meme saved on June 26, 2020 from the misleading Facebook post

What is the System32 folder? 

“The C:\Windows\System32 directory is a critical part of the Windows operating system where important system files are stored. Some pranksters online may tell you to delete it, but you shouldn’t,” wrote Chris Hoffman, editor of How-To Geek, an online technology magazine.

Technical support website Computer Hope says that most Microsoft Windows error messages “will contain the system32 directory because many of the system files Windows uses to run are stored in this directory”. 

“By itself, the system32 directory will not cause any errors, unless it is missing, of course.”

It’s not easy to delete the folder as it is protected by permissions but if you do get around them, this technology blogger recorded what happens when it's deleted.

For example, he shows how the start menu and task manager begin to malfunction and how other applications don’t even open.

“The Windows installation is ruined until you completely reinstall Windows and you really can’t do anything with it, even with the built-in recovery features it won’t be able to fix it.”

So why would people be encouraging you to delete System32? The latest posts are part of a long-running hoax, which has been shared in the past under the guise of trying to make your “computer run faster”.

“Many non-computer savvy folks have no idea what the System32 folder is at all, leading to some enterprising trolls spreading a meme that ‘deleting System32 will make your computer run twice as fast’,” according to the technology blog Techquickie on YouTube.

“This particular piece of meme-mory has been making its rounds on the internet since at least the early 2000s, but the way it’s usually presented still fools many computer novices.”

Images saved from Google showing meme’s about deleting System32 shared over the years

Is private browsing really private?

As the Google Chrome support page explains, private browsing is not one hundred percent private. Activity such as location can be seen by websites you visit or sign in to, by your employer or your internet service provider.

A screenshot taken on June 26, 2020 from the Google Chrome help page

The Kingpin browser, which uses incognito mode and adblock, states on its website that with a little bit of coding a user can retrieve the private browsing history of a person, as long as they are on the same computer. 

“The private browsing mode has a loophole. You can see the browsing history of someone using incognito mode but only if you have access to their computer. Also, they must be using the Windows operating system.”

David Szivos, managing director at South African ICT firm SA Computers, told AFP that you can only retrieve incognito browser history while the incognito tab is open and active.

“Once it’s closed the browser history is wiped from the computer. However, the DNS cache on the computer does retain network activity log and that includes all websites visited,” Szivos told AFP in an email.

“This can be recalled by using the ipconfig /displaydns command in elevated Command prompt mode. It can be wiped by using ipconfig /flushdns command in the same window,” said Szivos.

A screenshot taken on July 7, 2020 of a browser history being retrieved in command prompt mode

Internet tutorials are freely available with information on how to safely remove unwanted browsing history.

Tendai Dube