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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

An Epic Digital Scare: Prepare to Lose Your Laptop

I had a scare earlier this week at Epic Burger in Chicago that was not a result of food poisoning or poor service. Quite the opposite, in fact, occurred. While waiting for a late afternoon take-out order, I set my backpack in a nearby chair. After filling a drink from the self-serve fountain, I walked out of the restaurant without returning to the chair and backpack. Partially due to battling a migraine headache, I did not realize the bag was gone until late in the evening. Even more painful, inside the backpack was my laptop containing more than 10 years of data.

Digital Detachment
“Lost Laptop” Photo via Flickr
There is a feeling of free-fall vertigo that comes with a lost or stolen device. On my laptop were many local files related to work and my livelihood, personal matters and mementos, and graduate school. The cost of the laptop was one thing, but the value of the accumulated stored documents and assets was quite another.

After retracing steps, I concluded that the backpack and laptop had to be at the restaurant. Later that evening, I went to look at location and deactivation options through Apple. Unfortunately, their service is of little use for devices not connected to the Internet and not powered on. My login offered some prevention for unauthorized access but files inside were not encrypted. I thought about identity theft and someone pulling personal account information. Would I have to change all of my credit cards? I also envisioned someone wiping the serial number and data to sell the computer. I visited Epic Burger’s website where I found an after-hours service number to call, as well as email to contact the location.

Encrypted Precautions
Beware which files you save where!
I did have the foresight to upload many of my critical files—closing documents to my house, passport and social security scans, tax returns, legal agreements, retirement and financial accounts, graduate school research and more—to rest encrypted in the cloud. For what I could still recover, I figured that file-wise I’d be ok. And the absence of clutter might even be cathartic. I also reminded myself that I did not use file synch applications for the vulnerabilities associated with this exact scenario. Losing a device that opens access to cloud storage through synchronization can put everything that you’ve stored there at risk.

Afterward, I pulled back and paused. In the scheme of things, the loss maybe wasn’t as big of a “fall” as I had made it out to be. Yes, losing a device such as a laptop was a big expense. Yes, I could be exposing my personal information. And yes, alerting bank and credit accounts, along with ID monitoring agencies was more than a hassle. Fortunately, I had already taken some precautions by storing important assets in the cloud (you can probably guess where) before this accident happened.

When Epic Burger opened the next morning, I contacted them. I described what the bag looked like and the first employee who answered said they did not have it. A second look from the manager, however, confirmed that they received my messages and had already placed the backpack in their office for safekeeping. I breathed a sigh of relief and thanked them for their honesty and diligence. In picking up the backpack, a simple thank you would not suffice, so I shared a nominal tip for doing such an honest deed.

Unexpected Outcomes
Learning from the experience I acknowledged that loss of laptops and devices happens—we are only human. I also decided that there are a few more files on my laptop that should be encrypted and put behind multi-factor authentication at-rest in the cloud, not on my laptop. Similarly, there are some files on my laptop that should not be saved there long-term at all. And passwords for both can always be longer, more unique and changed. The world can be an unforgiving place and we need to take steps to batten down the hatches, defend against data leakage, loss, misuse or worse. At the same time, even in the age of ubiquitous digital danger, let’s not lose sight of the “Epic” goodness that exists in humanity. Prepare for the worst, indeed, but do not stop appreciating or hoping for the best.





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