Confessions of a hard drive



A few days ago, I tweeted this after a thought-provoking discussion with a client:

Interesting discussion w/client: are computer techs bound by a priest-like seal of confession re: what's on the hard drive?

Here's the most eloquent response I received, from a Computer Healer who is carrying so many secrets he asked not to be named:


Priest-like seal of confession? Sorta. I think of it more like I'm the maid cleaning the room or a doctor treating patients. You see a lot, but you've got work to do. You solve a problem, you move on. There's no way to remember it all and no one really wants to hear about it.

What is priest shop-talk like? Do they consult with each other to best console and guide the flock? Is it good enough to anonymize the confessor?

Once you rise to the level of advanced computer healer like me, you can often diagnose the computer's problem just by entering the room. A sound, a lagginess in the mouse, all are clues. The way things are arranged on the desktop. It reflects the inner organizational habits of the user or the organization. I have cured by a laying of hands.

Computers have become such a private repository of a person's life. So much gets created and stored there, but so many people don't focus on backups. They don't care for it the way they'd keep a wedding dress or baby pictures. Microsoft doesn't make it easy. They purposefully hide a person's email, for example. Someone might be smart enough to backup their My Documents folder to a thumb drive, but not their email - their notes, their conversations, the pictures they've received.

The most heartbreaking moment in my job is when I tell them the hard drive is dead and it'll cost $400-1500 to recover the files. Many young people can't afford that. I tell them to just keep the hard drive around until they can afford it.

I've helped companies recover data related to internal investigations. I am tempted to get my private investigator's license, as it would probably triple my per-hour fee, but I'd need to invest in quite a bit more security equipment to preserve the chain of evidence.

If I ever see something offensively illegal on a computer I'm repairing, I'd report it... but I've never seen that. Have I seen things I wish I could un-see? You bet. If I think about it, the greater mystery is the peek into the zeitgeist. Such narcissism! Young women taking thousands of arm's-length self-portraits with a pouty face, thousands of pictures of three of their friends all leaning together making cool faces. Why?

Such addictions to computer games! World of Warcraft, Unreal Tournament, people calling me twice a day to see when they'll get their computer back, telling me it's quite important that they be online at 7 p.m. tonight because they have to join their guild for a fight. Their deepest personal connection is with far-flung semi-anonymous personalities rather than their own community. A game server company could go out of business and a large chunk of their being would be set adrift. Is it much different when people are mesmerized with Twitter or Facebook?

We are marching into a future where our next generation will have created a digital record of their youth that diffuses out into the world, a record that might've been shared and literally reproduced with friends who will move along their life and years and decades later those pictures, those notes could be released to the world if someone was motivated to do that. Facebook and cell phones will make it harder for this generation to move to another city and leave a section of their life behind.

I hear about it from attorney friends all the time: how stupid people can be! Going through a divorce, they tell their lawyer one thing, they put photos up on Facebook to show otherwise. Sure, I've stopped drinking and smoking dope, really I have.

I have a few clients where I'm forced into the role of pretending not to know they have a porn addiction, one that leads them repeatedly to infect their computer with more spyware. Every few months, they pay me again to clean. Guys, when I run my tool to remove the temporary files that clog your computer (great design, Mr. Gates) it pretty much tells me where you've been. I become a counselor, warning them of what'll happen if they download again. I counsel the parents who can't control their kids - their adult kids - who repeatedly mess up the home computer.

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