What I Got for Christmas: Someone's Identity

One of the items on my gift list this Christmas was a new MacBook. 'Tis better to give than to receive, and to give a Mac is to release myself of laptop husbandry, which is possibly the best gift of all. Anyway, I picked up a used MacBook on eBay for a good price, and much to my relief, it finally appeared at my door at 7pm, Christmas Eve.

I wasted no time in unpacking it and checking it over. It wasn't the pristine cosmetic example boasted about in the auction details, unfortunately, but it did come with all the original packaging, discs, and so on. With little time to spare before Christmas, I fired it up to make sure everything worked. It booted directly into the only user account on the system.

It hadn't been wiped or reinstalled.

I took a few minutes to see what there was to see. Within two clicks, I'd found a folder named "Passwords", populated with lists of sites, usernames, passwords, and answers to security questions. There was another named "Tax Returns" that contained full copies of tax returns. There were invoices, e-mail, saved correspondence, and even some interesting photos, all carefully organized.

The previous owner had basically given me every possible detail about their identity, all for the incredibly low price of a used MacBook.

Of course in this case they lucked out. They sold it to me. After a quick perusal and ensuring that the hardware specs matched the auction details, I threw in a Leopard disc and did a full wipe and reinstallation.

I can't quite fathom the thought process that went into this sale. For me, wiping the hard drive before selling or giving away used hardware is as fundamental as breathing. Also, when the new owner turns it on for the first time they're greeted with the first-boot welcome and setup functions which almost makes the laptop seem new. Everybody wins.

Some computers are sterile workstations that contain very little identifying information about the owner, but laptops and home desktops are generally very personal -- they house the modern equivalent of the contents of a wallet or purse, in addition to the contents of filing cabinets in a home office. Nobody would dream of selling a wallet or purse without emptying it first, and they would never sell their filing cabinets with their files still in them, so why do so many people sell computers without performing this basic and simple step?

It's not just individuals either. Companies do this with frightening regularity. Sometimes, so do political campaigns. Most cases go unreported for obvious reasons.

It would be very interesting to go through eBay and buy a half-dozen used PCs, just to see what is on the systems when they arrive. I bet at least a few would contain information similar to what I found on this MacBook. I'm also sure that plenty of people have had their identity nicked in just this way.

As I mentioned earlier, I try to avoid being married to the computers of friends and family. I'll help out if I happen to have the time, but increasingly I just say "Get a Mac" when confronted with tales of DLL errors, malware, viruses, and so forth. There's one thing I'll always help them with though, and that's wiping a system they want to get rid of. I suggest that more geeks do the same.

This article originally appeared in a blog posting on our sister site, Infoworld.com.

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