This is part 1 of a 3-part series on Mac data security: Perils of persistent data.
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The year is 2020. A 16-year-old boy wearing plain, black clothes is walking in the rubble of landfill. Despite putting his arm over his nose, the boy can’t escape the thick, gut-wrenching stench hanging in the air. He gives up eventually, deciding that his arms are better used for balance than air filters.
Like a beetle walking on the carcasses of yesterday’s material obsessions, he trudges on. The boy steps over a piece of tire, then walks around the remains an old arm chair. Pausing for a moment, he looks up at a seagull flying overhead. Squinting unbearably at the bright sun, he looks back down.
His eye catches what looks like the edge of an old notebook computer buried under some household garbage. He bends over and picks it up.
It’s the Macbook you’re reading this on today.
The boy pulls out a screw driver and pops out the prize inside – the hard drive. He then removes his mobile phone, to which he connects the hard drive using a special adapter. After a minute or two, he copies the data.
He puts his app phone back in his pocket, plants his right foot and slings the hard drive as hard as he can at the seagull overhead. For a few seconds, it spins rapidly through the air, as though for a moment becoming undead.
Gravity stays undefeated. The media corpse descends, then bounces off a piece of twisted metal, then nestles into a new grave site. After watching for a few seconds, the boy turns and walks away.
On his way home, the boy takes out his app phone again and launches an app called Panner, which starts scanning the copied hard drive data. The program, which was CIA-grade forensics technology just ten years before, is available for free download in 2020. Like a digital 49er, the boy uses the app to sift flecks of gold from the other useless sediment.
He’s panning for your social security number, your date of birth, your bank account numbers, your photograph, your children’s information, and anything else he can fuse into a black-marketable identity. Panner makes it easy. In no time, your information is neatly summarized. It’s all right there at his disposal, reviewable at a glance, and only seconds away from being auctioned online.
He finds more than just your information because you sold your Macbook to a friend in 2013. Even though you deleted every last bit of your data, the free but powerful forensics program sniffs it out like a seasoned hunting dog.
The enterprising, if ill-intentioned, young man has had a productive day extracting nutrients from the digital decay.
Have you ever thought about the future of your hard drive and the inevitable demise it will face? When you surrender your Mac (voluntarily or not), you're giving away more than its physical matter. Your digital footprint goes with it too.
It may come as a surprise that when you delete a file on your Mac, it’s not really gone. Well, it is gone from sight, but it’s not gone from your hard drive. By default, when you delete a file, it lands in the trash. This makes it really easy to recover the file later if you “deleted” it by accident. Convenient.
Even when you empty the trash, the file is actually still on your computer. Using not-so-hard to find tools, someone could recover your deleted files pretty easily if they wanted to. It’s true today, not to mention ten years from now.
Not so convenient.
The concept of gone but not gone
The problem with deleted files that are not-so-deleted has always existed – both with PCs and Macs.
In the physical world, if you throw something away without creating trash, it’s called recycling. PC’s, which perhaps mimic the physical world more than any other type of computer even show a recycling bin on the desktop. What goes in can come out.
On a Mac, we have a trash bin, which is the default landing spot for any files and folders we delete.
Whether it’s a Mac or PC, I would love it if you stopped thinking about deleting as deleting and started thinking about it has copying. You’re simply copying the file to another folder.
The perils of persistent data are growing by the day
For one thing, the world is shifting away from stationary desktop computers to more portable machines like laptops, tablets, and beyond. It’s a lot easier to lose a portable device than a stationary device.
Additionally, people do more and more personal finance tasks on computers than ever before. I know that I, for one, get virtually all of my bills and financial statements electronically these days.
I’ve been in the habit of shredding paper mail that contains sensitive information like social security numbers, account numbers, credit card offers, and really anything with my information with my name on it for years. It’s easy to understand that if you simply throw away mail, anyone that finds that mail later on can pretend they’re you – to your detriment.
Even though we now download this same information in PDF or other electronic format, it’s just as important to be vigilant. It’s more important, actually.
Why? Because you don’t know who or what might be sniffing around your hard drive down the road if you lose your Mac, sell your Mac, or just leave it unattended for too long. At some point, the Mac you have today will leave your possession. With it, will go your data.
Yes, even that data you “deleted.”
The good news
Awareness is over half the battle. So if I have your attention, that’s great. By simply being more aware of the risks of downloading sensitive data and taking a few easy precautions, you can go lightyears along the path toward securing your private data.
In the next few posts, I’ll show you what I do.