Tag Archives: theft

Data theft too unethical? (or the value of backups)

A thief who respects data and information. Illustration: Anna Ericsson

Västerbottens Kuriren reports (in Swedish) that the story of a laptop thief in Umeå, Sweden, reached international interest.

Being reported all over western civilisation (at least), people seem to think this was a respectable thief. Stealing laptops is of course dirty business and an obvious crime – theft. However, even though data can be duplicated indefinitely at virtually no cost – while physical hardware can’t – stored information is often much more valuable.

“Often when people lose their computers and cameras, it is understandably not the gadget itself that is the most important. The content is often irreplaceable,” he told the newspaper.

Anyone can buy a laptop today. Just about every higher-grade student in Sweden probably has their own computer, either a laptop or the equivalent in the form of a smartphone. What is stored in memory is mostly junk, I suppose, but photos have a certain value that can’t be reinstated. You can’t recreate a photograph from scratch, just as you can’t recreate a memory. A laptop, though, can  be found at a junkyard in pretty good shape just because it’s “a couple of years old” or something.

Going back to the professor he didn’t just have photos and memories on the laptop. He had 10 years of his life, including scientific research, apparently. From what I understand, this was the single copy available of most of his data. In a single bag. At a single place in space-time.

“It is my life. I have documented everything in it that has happened in the last 10 years and beyond,” he told the newspaper.

“Unfortunately, I have been bad at backing up my computer.”

Why isn’t there more focus on this issue (in general. everywhere.)? The theft itself is common as laptops run away on their own all the time. Also it’s interesting and slightly humorous that the thief actually returns all data which is stolen – perhaps because he realised there’s more than material value in the documents. At least in the fashion that he can’t sell it. But there’s of course no guarantee that data isn’t returned, unless the user itself takes responsibility – and backs stuff up.

“Just as night follows day, and Autumn follows Summer, so should backups follow work. As you work, so should you backup that work.”

The above quote is from the Tao of Backup story which I recommend everyone to read. Having read it, you may either choose to be wise and follow the advice and ingenuity of the master – or you can be foolish to keep doing what you’re (not) doing. Any method is better than none, and many different methods are better than few.

Besides all this you should also care about encryption, but that’s an entirely different matter. Backup is redundancy, encryption is security. You probably need a bit of both to be sure that when you loose your USB keys (stolen or falling out of the pocket) you won’t lose neither your life nor your identity.

Read the story about the Swedish professor and smile to it if you want to. Just remember that it may be you who loses data next time. Be it through theft, clumpsiness, your house catching on fire, ultra-strong magnets or merely hardware failure – all of them require the same preemptive solution: a healthy backup routine.