An operating system, or OS, is a suite of interconnected software that controls and connects all of a computer's hardware functions. It provides the visual interface that allows you to see and select files and programs, interprets your mouse movements and keyboard inputs and tells your audio drivers how to process sound, among many other things. The heart of an operating system is its core file repository, and on a Windows operating system that core repository is known as "System32," or System 32.
The System32 File Repository
Without System32, your Windows installation cannot function properly. Though a popular and mean-spirited online prank suggests otherwise, you should not delete System 32 from your computer outside of the most extreme circumstances.
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The System32 core file repository, most commonly located at the file path "C:\Windows\System32," is installed alongside the rest of a default Windows installation. System32 has been present in Windows versions from Windows 2000 through Windows 10, and contains a variety of files, executable programs and device drivers that allow the OS to communicate with various parts of your computer's hardware – and provide hardware access to the programs you actively use. Without the files inside System32, you would not be able to print text documents from your word processor, use your webcam with a video messaging program or interact with any of the files or programs on your computer in the first place.
Because System32 is such a critical folder – to the point that a major problem with the folder and its contents requires a full Windows reinstall to fix – the OS has a number of built-in safety measures to protect System32 from accidental or uninformed tampering. Unfortunately, because the majority of Windows users do not know what System32 is, or how important the folder is overall, tricking less tech-savvy users into sabotaging their computers has become a popular online prank.
Delete System 32 Pranks
Windows users who have searched for advice on how to fix a slow computer, fix a sound problem or solve a different technical issue with their computer will occasionally be told to delete the System 32 folder. Often, this advice suggests that a so-called System 32 virus has infected their computer and that, if the folder can be found in their primary Windows directory, deleting the folder (or as many files within it as possible) is the only way to prevent anything from a full system meltdown to a massive leak of a user's personal files or data.
The prank was popularized in the early 2000s on the 4chan forums before spreading out across the internet. This misinformation will often pair its false claims with instructions that, when followed to the letter, engage a system command or admin bypass procedure that deletes the folder by going around Windows' safety measures. This prank has become widespread enough that users will often post questions on forums asking "Where can I find the System 32 file?" in the hopes of deleting it, not realizing that they've been deceived.
Troubleshooting Real System32 Issues
Though the System32 folder is protected by the Windows OS, the folder is not immune to viruses, spyware or malware programs that can infect a system. If you suspect that your System32 folder has been compromised, it is crucial to install and run an antivirus program as soon as possible to quarantine or remove the malicious program. If your antivirus program's regular scan suggests that a number of infections have reached System32, back up any important files to a location other than your computer's hard drive.
On rare occasions, a virus or a piece of corrupted data will interfere with System32 or another core Windows component to the point that you actually need to delete the System32 folder or some of its contents. Deleting System32 may stop the problem from getting worse or may enable a Windows reinstall. If and only if this is the case, System32 files can be deleted by taking ownership of the folder through Administrator permissions (which require you to use an account with Admin privileges) or by using the "del" command in the Windows Command Prompt.
Ownership can be taken by right-clicking the folder, clicking "Properties" in the context menu that appears, and giving yourself account permissions in the "Security" tab. You will then be able to delete files as needed, though Windows may not allow you to delete certain files if they are considered "in use" by another program (or Windows itself). In most situations, however, it is more effective, as well as significantly faster and easier, to format the hard drive Windows is installed to and then install Windows or a different OS from scratch.