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The Adventure of My Defunct Hard Drive

Apple Wants Your Money or Your Life

by ALEXANDER REED KELLY

In the everyday game between man and corporation, it is taken for granted that the house always prevails. Apple’s winning streak hit a snag last week however, when I won an exception to the company’s policy governing the replacement of warrantied hard drives.

My laptop stopped working late at night Friday. When I sat down at my desk, an icon of a folder with a question mark in the middle blinked in and out of the screen’s white glow, while a soft clicking came from beneath the keyboard. I bought the machine six months ago and had pages of notes, unfinished work and recorded interviews on it, none of which I’d backed up. After a night spent weeping softly into my pillow, I took it the next morning to a local specialist. The man behind the counter said the data was almost certainly lost, but that the drive could be swapped for a new one for no charge.

On Tuesday it was confirmed that the data was gone. My only option for the wrecked drive, the specialist told me over the phone, was to send it to a company called Drive Savers. For between $750 and $2,500, a man in a moon suit would sit in a sealed room and use lasers to lift whatever information he could directly from the disk. Even then, recovery wasn’t guaranteed. I couldn’t afford it, I told her, but I may have a friend who can help me privately, so I would take the drive to him instead. Impossible, the specialist responded. “Apple requires that we return all replaced drives directly to the manufacturer,” she said. Once there, my precious disk would be destroyed. I could keep it only if I paid $300 — a full $100 more than it would cost simply to buy a new drive.

This was problematic for two reasons. First, if the original item — which I already paid for — was worthless to the company, why couldn’t I keep it? Second, defunct as it was, the drive contained information that was my property, not the manufacturer’s, and some of the data pertained to sources I’d spoken to in the course of reporting and whom I’d guaranteed confidentiality. How could I keep my promise if their information was in the hands of a corporation and still theoretically retrievable? I had to reclaim it.

The specialist agreed to hold the disk until the end of the day. I thanked her. Then I called Apple customer service. After a few automated questions I was in touch with a living person. I explained to the woman who answered what had happened and that I needed the disk returned without cost. With a mix of sugar and tin in her voice, she informed me that nothing could be done. I insisted otherwise, and she agreed to pass me on to her supervisor.

This scenario repeated itself three times. Eventually I was on the line with a man who claimed to be Apple Care’s senior employee. He was sympathetic to my story, but also regretted that he could do nothing. “That’s just the policy,” he said. Plus, he had no authority over the manufacturer. He advised me to make backup copies of my data next time. Frustrated by the impudence of this advice, I said what seemed to be the magic words:

“I’m a journalist. In addition to containing months of irreplaceable work, the drive your company is repossessing holds sensitive information that would reveal the names of a number of confidential sources,” I said. “Those people expect their identities to remain private. Additionally, it contains personal property of mine that I’d like to remain private. These circumstances raise a number of legal liability questions involving Apple, the manufacturer, the specialist, my publisher and me. I’m happy to hear the drive would be destroyed, but I make my living being skeptical of such claims, and I couldn’t in good conscience make an exception here.”

The man put me on hold. For a few minutes, the sound of Bob Marley’s “One Love” crackled in my ear. When he returned, he said he’d contact the manufacturer to see whether he could find a “loophole” and get back to me. We hung up more than an hour after I made the call.

Good news arrived thirty minutes later. The factory would let me keep the drive free of charge. Once the Apple guy made some other arrangement I didn’t understand, I could collect my old disk and my fixed laptop at the end of the day. I thanked him and hung up. Two hours later the deal was confirmed. By the end of the working day, I was home with both the drive and my laptop.

This is a tale of fortune and misfortune. I emerged with my privacy — and the privacy of my sources — intact. But what if I wasn’t a reporter with an imperative to protect people? Absent the legal implications and the ability to advertise the matter, would I have been allowed to keep my personal information if I had just asked nicely? The fact is, in the event that its product fails, it is Apple’s policy that the purchaser surrender that product and everything on it — contact lists, password and username combinations, banking records, personal writings, photographs from your brother’s bachelor party and the rest of your media library — to it or the associated manufacturer. They’ll destroy it, they tell you. They promise.

It seems true enough that the odds of Apple spending anything to pull information off some customer’s broken hard drive are virtually nil. But odds mean nothing where privacy is concerned. Peace of mind comes only with the safe return of one’s sensitive property, and the withholding of that comfort for the sake of destroying an object that the company claims is worthless to them is an act of supreme arrogance. It prompts one to wonder how Apple might benefit from the arrangement. When I collected my computer, the specialist told me Apple indeed has a “relationship” with the company that recovers lost data for the charge of up to 5 percent of the current median household income.

For some murky reason, for the majority of Apple’s customers, it’s your money or your life.

Alexander Reed Kelly is an assistant editor at Truthdig.