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Recovering From a Laptop Theft

This past Friday night, while my wife and I dined at a restaurant in downtown Seattle, someone smashed the window of my car in the parking lot and grabbed my bag — containing my laptop, my camera, my passport, and a number of other things. Virtually my whole business and personal life (photos, and so on) was on that computer. I feel like the proverbial, “I never thought it would happen to me….”

I’ve spent the past 36 hours being angry at myself and the thief. So, in the hopes that my experience may be helpful to others, I’m offering a few thoughts in the category of “I wish I had… I should have… I could have…”

The Computer Is Already Stolen. There’s an old zen story about a monk who has a precious cup on the edge of a shelf. When someone asks him why he doesn’t move it to a safer place, the monks replies that to him, the cup is already broken. The lesson is that a) we must assume that the laptop is already stolen; b) let go of our attachment to it; and c) prepare for the eventuality of the laptop being gone in each moment.

Password protect the laptop. If there were one thing I would have done differently, it would have been to turn on the “Require password to wake this computer from sleep or screen saver” feature in the Security pane of System Preferences. (There must be an equivalent on Windows.) With that on, I don’t have to worry about anyone seeing my personal and professional files. They can wipe the hard drive, but it’d be hard for them to crack the password protection. 

Use CrashPlan or other automated off-site backup. Here’s one that I did do, and it has saved my bacon. Or tofu. Or whatever. I love CrashPlan. It is awesome. It backs up everything I do behind the scenes, either to another computer (any other computer, even one elsewhere on the internet), or to their central backup servers (in Minnesota, I think). I do the latter, for about $5/month (up to something like 50 Gb of data). The software works beautifully, and I just rarely think about it. I happened to have an internet connection a couple hours before the theft, and so about 98% of my new files had been backed up.

Plus, the folks at CrashPlan have been incredibly helpful. I can even use their Web site to check to see if my laptop has “called in” from a new IP address. If it ever does, I may have some useful data to give to the police.

My only regret is that I limited the files that it would back up. For example, I didn’t have it backing up my iPhoto and iTunes folders. I figured it was just too much data. Well, there’s one month of photos of my family that I will probably never recover. 

Backup more regularly. I use the excellent Mac OS program SuperDuper, which copied my whole laptop to an external hard drive. It’s fast and (most important) really easy to use. The big problem there is that I last did this a month ago. I wish I had done it every week or so. It would have saved me a great deal of work and hassle. CrashPlan is great, but having a local hard drive with my files would be even better.

Put your computer in the trunk. How many times have people told me, “put your valuables in the trunk to keep them safe”? Wow. Well, that’s the last time I’ll be putting my bag in plain view for everyone to see.

Other Software I Could Have Installed? I know there are great tools such as Undercover, that can track computers if they’re plugged into the internet. Branislav Milic just sent me a great list of links and articles, including this one and this other one that had excellent suggestions.

In the meantime, I may be a bit behind on blog posts here for a while until I can get my life and computer back on track. Thank goodness I do have a backup machine that I can use in the meantime.

Stay safe, back up often, and remember: The cup is already broken.

David Blatner

David Blatner

David Blatner is the co-founder of the Creative Publishing Network, InDesign Magazine, and the author or co-author of 15 books, including Real World InDesign. His InDesign videos at Lynda.com are among the most watched InDesign training in the world. You can find more about David at 63p.com.
David Blatner

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  • - November 30, -0001
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35 Comments on “Recovering From a Laptop Theft

  1. Put a password on the BIOS. Also from my understanding, if you set a password on your iPod, it can only be unlocked from the computer that it was synced to. If they steal it, at least make their life impossible to sell it.

  2. Kenny G. Villacorta: remove the mobo’s battery for a minute and see how that holds up…

    David: the Windows password, at least for anything up to XP (not sure about Vista) can be cracked and/or replaced in a system file through DOS with supposed ease. There’s no fool-proof way to protect a computer that I’ve heard of, except perhaps extra chips that do the password protection and simply won’t allow the bios to do its thing if the chip isn’t there.

    Here in Holland the biggest phone company’s also the biggest ISP (big surprise there huh?) and they offer a ?4,95 a month online back-up program with no limit on the amount of data you store. I’m considering getting it at home to store everything, but at work the internet connection’s too slow (1/20th the upload speed of my home connection) to back-up all files, so I’ll stick with my customers’ files only on two external HDDs there.

    Also, remember to turn off all wireless connections (wifi, bluetooth) when you put the notebook in the trunk of your car without actually shutting it down, but rather have it go into sleep or hybernation. The “bad guys” simply scan for network activity using keychain-sized scanners and know which trunks to open that way. That’s how my bro-in-law lost a brand-spankin’ new notebook last year.

  3. With many attempts from people to steal my motorbike, the latest last night, I am forever saying, “Why can’t people just leave things alone?” Luckily enough someone intercepted the attempt and left me a note to that effect, which was nice.

    Sorry to hear about your loss David. It’s truly awful to think that someone was going through your possessions, I know the feeling only too well.

  4. As far as theft of a computer goes, it’s not that hard to bypass logins and things like that. The only thing you can do is keep the laptop data backed up all the time.

    There is a program I have for a MacBook that records any camera movement and takes a picture and emails the image to an email account, I have a similar program on my Laptop at home, it came with the computer. Both Applications blast an annoying siren and requires a password to turn it off (or a hammer), basically everything is locked down, including powerbuttons, the battery would have to be wasted or taken out before it would turn off the alarm.

    I have a 1TB wireless network at home, as soon as my laptop is in WiFi range it backs up any new data. As well as putting important work on CD/DVD/BD there isn’t much you can do.

    How infuriating to lose all that equipment, let alone the memories contained within them, and whatever work you had going on there.

  5. David,

    Ouch! That’s terrible news. :( (Although it’s always somewhat of a consolation when bad things happen to things rather than people.)

    I’m a little paranoid about where I keep my laptop.

    FWIW, Setting a password in preferences doesn’t do much. Anyone with a Mac installation CD can reset the password. The only way you can give your computer any level of security, is by enabling File Vault.

  6. RE: ?Password protect the laptop?
    Unless you have set up your Mac to use the FileVault feature, your files on the hard drive are unprotected. Every 21st century Mac (with the inglorious exception of the latest ?lo-fi? MacBooks) can be booted into FireWire Target Mode with unlimited access to any unencrypted file. And even then, a thief can simply remove the drive and put it into any enclosure.

    That said, password protection at least helps to keep your other passwords secure ? unless they were stored in an unprotected file, of course. And generally it makes everything less easy for a potential thief, that?s for sure.

    The first thing every user of a portable Mac should do is to open the Keychain Access app, select the ?login? keychain in the list, go to Edit menu > ?Change Settings for Keychain? and turn on ?Lock when sleeping?; the more paranoid among you may even consider the option ?Lock after X minutes of inactivity?.

    The second thing is to go to System Preferences > Accounts > Login Options and disable Automatic Login, then enable ?Display login window as Name and password?.

    Additionally I?m enabling the ?Require password to wake this computer from sleep? in the Security preferences whenever I?m travelling, since the keychain protection doesn’t work for already open connections like an e-mail account (e.g. when you have Mail.app running and put the Mac to sleep, you can still access the account after waking it up, despite having your Keychain locked when sleeping).

    (This all applies to Tiger, under Leopard it may look similar though.)

  7. Hi David, that’s really bad news, and unfortunately becoming a more frequent event.

    I’ve started using Apple’s Time Machine on my iMac. It’s helped me out a few times now.

    Once the whole system is backed up to an external USB, an hourly backup of modified files is taken – so it runs quietly in the background without too much disruption.

    The process of restoring is very easy too.

    I’m sure there must be a similar system available for Windows too?

    I believe one of the features allows you to boot from this Time Machine backup should the unthinkable happen – and according to Apple virtually “carry on where you left off”

    Doesn’t help your situation much I know, but I wondered if the group here had any experience of this method and potential pitfalls.

    Thanks

    Pete

  8. David, I’m sorry to hear of your sad tale — but glad to hear you’re moving on!

    The so-called “password protection” for logging onto Windows systems is a joke, as I or anyone with some basic ‘puter knowledge can access all the files via a DOS boot or other low-level access.

    The only 100% safe thing to do is to encrypt your hard drive — if not all of it, at least some part, like a partition for super-private data. I use TrueCrypt, a free, open-source solution from http://www.truecrypt.org. It has CIA-level encryption and is very easy to use. It’s available for Win, Mac & Linux.

    If my laptop got stolen, I’d be annoyed, yes, but not worried at all that anyone could get at my private stuff: the third partition on my hard drive is just impossible to access without my password. TrueCrypt even encrypts in such a way that such a drive cannot be distinguished from random noise. As far as the thief can tell, there’s nothing on that third partition but unused disk space.

    So I warmly recommend to everyone to give TrueCrypt a chance.

  9. There’s not much else to say except THAT SUCKS.

    I’ve never had a computer stolen but I have had a car broken into and it leave you with an absolutely sick feeling.

    I’m glad you’ve got most of your data backed up and I trust that you have insurance but it certainly takes some time to get over the anger more than anything else.

  10. I’ve been paranoid about my own laptop ever since David told me what happened.

    One thing I’ve found is that, for a Mac at least, to consider setting up an Open Firmware password. This prevents users from starting up from anything other than the start-up disk you selected in System Prefs, which presumably has a hard-to-guess login password.

    The Open Firmware password is off by default. More info on how to set it up is here: Setting up a firmware password.

    I’ve insured all my computers with a special policy for the past umpteen years. In that policy, computers “in unattended vehicles” (in the trunk or elsewhere) are specifically not covered. I guess because it’s such a common occurrence. But I had been lulled into an “oh it’ll never happen” attitude until this thing with David. Oy vey.

    Looking into Crash Plan, too! ;-) I do back up critical files to my .Mac account nightly via an Automator script I put together, but CrashPlan sounds like a safer bet.

    I concur with SuperDuper. That does rotating backups for all our computers nightly and weekly, unattended. Wonderful program.

  11. I mostly use a desktop windows based machine, so I don’t fear too much about theft. However, my external hard drive recently crashed. I was very glad I had all 50 gigs backed up online. I use Mozy, which I think now supports Mac, but I’m not sure.

  12. David,

    Sorry to hear about your laptop. I found out last week while attending the InDesign conference a girl from work had her laptop stolen from her car while she was in a local fitness club. We back-up the computers, but the thieves still have access to everything on the laptop.

    Thanks for sharing your story because I feel it’s helpful to others!

    On a similar note, several months ago, I took the credit cards from my wallet and made a copy. If my wallet gets stolen, I know exactly what I’m missing along with the phone numbers I need to cancel them.

  13. There is also Computrace ” LoJack” for laptops. It works on Mac and Windows. Depending on the option you buy depends on if you can have files deleted when the computer connects to the internet. Sometimes your private files are more important to not have fall into the wrong hands.

  14. I feel your pain.

    I recently lost 40Gb of data when one of my hard drives crashed. Not exactly the same as theft, but more or less the same result.

    The stupid thing is, I do back up my important files, by copying them to another drive now and then. However, lately I had been running short of disc space and I?m moved a few files around to save space and the backup folder for that drive ended up ON that drive!

    D?oh!

  15. Use Adeona, a free and private tracker for your laptop.
    http://adeona.cs.washington.edu/
    Adeona is the first Open Source system for tracking the location of your lost or stolen laptop that does not rely on a proprietary, central service. This means that you can install Adeona on your laptop and go ? there’s no need to rely on a single third party. What’s more, Adeona addresses a critical privacy goal different from existing commercial offerings. It is privacy-preserving. This means that no one besides the owner (or an agent of the owner’s choosing) can use Adeona to track a laptop. Unlike other systems, users of Adeona can rest assured that no one can abuse the system in order to track where they use their laptop.

  16. Hi David

    I’m really sorry to hear this bad news but relieved for you that you had done some backing up.

    Speaking of which, I’m curious about the process of restoration from an online service like CrashPlan. Does it take a long time to get your data back over the Internet?

    Best of luck with getting back on track,
    Jessica

  17. David, I think your painful experience will at have a positive affect on a lot of us. I preach to others the gospel of backup, but don’t always follow my own advice–till now. My new attitude (and hopefully it sticks) is based on your zen story: “the file is already corrupt.”

  18. Dear David:
    Just heard of your misfortune. Ouch-erooni! As others have noted, I can only hope those who don’t back up will learn from your experience.

    Not patting myself on the back (or back-up), for years I’ve been preaching the gospel of “Back up what you can’t afford to lose.” My other favorite homily is “It’s not a question of if your hard drive will fail, but when.” Today, with hard drives so cheap, there’s no reason not to be vigilant about backing up.

    My strategy is three-tiered. 1) use Time Machine (or Time Capsule for wireless back up) if you’re on Mac OSX; 2) use SuperDuper! or CarbonCopy Cloner for daily, incremental and unattended bootable back ups; 3) use an off-site, remote service like CrashPlan or SugarSync to also create incremental and unattended back ups.

    You can never be too safe or too secure, and having a reliable back up strategy will make you sleep well.

  19. I’m very sorry about your loss. I’m very sure your post will indeed help reminding others of how important it is to keep the laptop safe and sound.

  20. I mostly use a desktop windows based machine, so I don?t fear too much about theft. However, my external hard drive recently crashed. I was very glad I had all 50 gigs backed up online. I use Mozy, which I think now supports Mac, but I?m not sure.

  21. I?m a little paranoid about where I keep my laptop.

    FWIW, Setting a password in preferences doesn?t do much. Anyone with a Mac installation CD can reset the password. The only way you can give your computer any level of security, is by enabling File Vault.

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