Online backup turns owner into amateur sleuth

10 Sep

This Google StreetView image was the first real clue Jim turned up, while using his stolen computer to find itself.

I have written in the past about the importance of backing up your data.

It’s much like writing your will – you know it’s critically important, but it’s hard to get around to it.

And these days, between photos, videos, text and other files, we have more data stored on our computers than ever. A system crash really would be disastrous, if that information is not copied somewhere else.

Did you know there are online solutions that utilize the cloud – storage on remote servers, elsewhere on the planet – to back up data? These are actually inexpensive, secure and easy to use.

I am in the process now of choosing an online storage system from a dozen or more service providers who all have their strengths and weaknesses. But that’s a story for another day. For now, let me tell you about Backblaze.com, and how it helped a customer use his stolen laptop to recover that laptop.

I learned about this via the blog of a young man who would rather remain anonymous, because he fears retribution from the criminal involved (though I did confirm his identity through an email exchange). Let’s call him Jim.

On July 30, Jim’s car was parked on a side street in Detroit, while he and a friend had lunch at a nearby restaurant. This was where his and his friend’s laptop computers were stolen, though they didn’t notice the theft until later (the gear was hidden in the trunk, and they didn’t immediately notice the screwdriver hole in the door panel).

At the police station that night the officer asked all the usual questions, but then said, “Was there an iPad or any way to track your computers?”

To his relief, Jim remembered that he did subscribe to Backblaze.

“Everything on my computer was backed up,” he wrote. “My personal files, photos, even my to-do list was saved to the cloud. I breathed a sigh of relief and logged onto the system from my phone. That’s when I noticed the little ‘Locate My Computer’ button.”

When Jim clicked the button, it positioned his computer at the hotel – the last place he used it. Clearly, the thief hadn’t turned on the computer yet. He tried again the next morning with the same result.

In town for a special event, Jim was about to hit the road home when he tried one last time. Bingo! There was a map on his screen, showing an approximate street location (the computer had found an open wifi network). He called the police, who said they couldn’t do anything without an exact address.

So Jim went to Google Street View, which gave him a picture of the neighbourhood. Helpful, but still not precise enough.

Then he remembered that Backblaze provides continuous, practically instantaneous backup. If the thief had used the computer, those files would have backed up to the cloud service as well. Jim logged in and searched for any recently uploaded files. He found six photos of a red SUV, taken in front of a house that was also visible on that Street View image. He could now identify a street address.

A ‘For Sale’ sign was visible in one of the SUV windows so Jim rather brilliantly went to Craigslist, where he found the vehicle listing. It was brief, but did offer a phone number.

Jim called the police with this information but the officer responsible was in court that day. It turned out the officer was also a homicide detective with bigger fish to fry than stolen computers. Remember, this is Detroit. More than a week went by before the detective called back, impressed by Jim’s detective work and promising to arrange a search warrant.

There was no answer several days later when the police team came knocking, so, armed with a warrant, they smashed in the front door. They found Jim’s computer and “multiple, large jars of suspected marijuana.” It turns out the suspect was already on probation for a previous drug trafficking conviction, so an arrest warrant was promptly issued. However, last time I checked he was still at large – and Jim was thus protecting his identity.

Jim tells this story himself in much greater detail at his blog, which you can find by searching for “tracking down my stolen computer.”

It was clever sleuthing on Jim’s behalf and any resourceful computer owner could do the same thing – as long as they’ve loaded a “find your computer” function in advance. There are a few out there, but to my knowledge Backblaze is the only online backup system that offers one.

I am currently shopping around for the right service at the right price and Backblaze has made it into my top three. There are many features to consider and I’m currently on a steep learning curve.

When I make a decision and sign up, you’ll be first to know.

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at http://www.thetelegram.com.

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