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How to Stop Windows Hiding Files and Folders

By default, Windows hides some files and folders that Microsoft considers to be part of the Windows Operating System.
The idea is to save users from self-harm by discouraging them from entering these proscribed areas and going on a rampage of deleting files.

If you have to do any form of maintenance or problem solving on your PC then you'll soon find yourself straying into these areas and you'll quickly become frustrated if Explorer windows are only showing you a filtered version of what's actually there.

This is the sanitised view of a typical C: drive:-

The default view of the C: drive with files hidden

This is what's really there:-

The C: drive showing all the files that are there

To make Windows display all files:-

Click Start - My Computer
then click on Tools - Folder Options - View
and change the options in the Advanced settings window to how they appear below.

The 3 settings that have been changed are indicated with red arrows:-


How to make Windows stop hiding files

Click OK and the new settings will take effect immediately.

Include Hidden files when Searching

Even after making the above changes so that Explorer windows will display these files, they still won't be included when using the built-in Windows search function.

To include hidden files in a search, in the Search main window, click on the right-facing arrowhead next to
More advanced options.
The arrowhead then faces downwards and more options are revealed.
Tick the 3 option shown below to include hidden files in your search:-

Changing the Search option to search hidden files  

Super-Hidden Files

This is not the end of the story as Microsoft still has some more trickery to hide folders from users who, otherwise, have full administrative rights to a computer.
The following is an example of some files and folders on your hard drive you'll have trouble seeing:-

System Volume Information
This is the folder directly under the C: drive, and usually on all other hard drive partitions as well.
Double-click on the folder in an Explorer window and this is what you get:-


The error message you get when you attempt to access the System Volume Information folder


Preventing access to this folder isn't really a trick, it's just that the default security permissions only allow access for System, which means just Windows itself:-


The security permissions on the folder c:\System Volume Information

If you have Windows XP or Vista Home, the only way you'll see a folder's Security tab is to boot into Safe Mode and logon as Administrator.

In XP Pro it's only visible if you've deselected:-
"Use simple file sharing" in

Control Panel - Folder Options - View

which, you guessed it, is selected by default.

You can right-click on the System Volume Information folder and choose:-
Properties - Security and Add - Full Control access for Administrators.
Then you'll be able to see what's hidden inside:-


The contents of the System Volume Information folder


It's where Windows stores the System Restore information which is a disaster recovery measure which allows you to set your PC's configuration back to a point in time before a problem occurred.
In the example above, there are 3 Restore Points available.
To perform a System Restore you use the tool called, unsurprisingly, System Restore which can be found in: Start - All Programs - Accessories - System Tools
It doesn't disrupt the operation of System Restore to leave the extra access permissions on the System Volume Information folder.

The Strangest Folder on your Computer

This is:

C:\Documents and Settings\<Windows logon name>\Local Settings\Temporary Internet Files

(You should substitute your username for <Windows logon name> )

If you've made the changes in the first part of this page, you should now be able to see this folder using Windows Explorer:-


File listing of the Temporary Internet Folder in an Explorer window

You'll find Windows Explorer in:-

Start -
All Programs - Accessories

It shows 8 files (often there are many more) related to Internet Explorer's cache.
But what does a Command Prompt window show?

File listing of the Temporary Internet Folder in a Command Prompt window

It shows one file, desktop.ini and 5 folders, not shown in the first listing,
while the 8 files shown in the first listing are missing from this Command Prompt listing.

If you now log-off and log-on again with a different administrator-level user and go to this folder using Windows Explorer, the Command Prompt listing is then confirmed:-


File listing of the Temporary Internet Folder in Windows Explorer as seen from another user account

This time, the folder is not part of the logged-on user's active profile.

Note that
My Documents
has changed to
John Smith's Documents

Another trick that this folder can perform is to contain multiple files with the identical name.

4 files in the same folder, each called bullet.gif

This really is your computer's Twilight Zone.

So why is Windows hiding folders and showing other files that aren't there?
On the one hand it doesn't really matter - perhaps the Internet Explorer Development Team got over-excited one day.
On the other hand it shows that Microsoft is prepared to fiddle with the internal workings of Windows in order to make Windows Explorer tells lies for, what appears to be, trivial reasons, probably, they would say, for the user's own protection.

That hidden folder name that begins with OLK is where Outlook temporarily stores email attachments, but if Outlook is closed with an email containing the attachments still open, then the files are never deleted.
This can be a useful place to look if you're wanting to find an attachment someone sent you a while a go and you've lost the original email:-


Old email attachments can often be found in the OLK folder



Rootkits are "super-viruses" that modify Window's internal workings so that the virus's files are invisible to you in Explorer windows and, worse still, are invisible to your anti-virus program.
Rootkits do a more thorough job of hiding things than some of the Windows tricks we've described earlier.

Rootkits certainly exist as, in 2006, Sony got into a lot of trouble for installing a rootkit from a music CD in order to hide it's copy protection software on users' PCs.
Usually the only way to detect a rootkit on your PC is to boot from a CD containing a scanning program.

The ability of anti-virus programs to detect rootkits is improving and they can usually detect known rootkit installation programs before they go invisible.
However, if your PC is behaving oddly and you've exhausted all logical steps to fix it then it's worthwhile scanning for rootkits.

The Moral of the Story

You can never be 100% sure that Windows is telling you the truth when it displays file listings

If a search says a file doesn't exist on your hard drive when you felt sure it should be there, it's usually worth a look with Windows Explorer or even from a Command Prompt window, in the location you think the file should be

Hidden files are not always Microsoft's fault but could be an evil rootkit in stealth mode

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