Monday, September 8, 2014

A Tale of Two Laptops

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
(and they say I write long sentences) Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities.

It was within the period of a little more than a month or more that two laptops were stolen. And while law and justice play a role in the unfolding of the events, sometimes the injustices that you find are bound to a different set of concerns.

Property crime is not new to Silicon Valley, or the rest of the world for that matter. For years San Jose promoted itself as one of the safest big cities, hiding under mantle of a low murder rate. But there was always property crime. Several years ago when we had an office in San Jose, somebody broke in one night and made a quick walk-through grabbing laptops off the desks where people had left them. At the time the thing that struck me was the irony of providing giving someone a laptop that never left their desk. In addition to the hardware, some data was lost as there was no structured practice for backup. In the months and years that followed, the official practice for laptop backup became being supplied an external drive -- maybe -- and a request/suggestion to back up to that drive.

Offices in the areas around what is now the Google campus used to get broken into a lot -- to the point that you would sometimes see more Mountain View cop cars in that neighborhood than your own. Friends that had an office in that area had several break-ins. Once, they not only stole computers, they also stole the software disks. It's probably better now with Google everywhere over there. Is it worth breaking into a building for a Chromebook?

Stealing laptops out of cars is so common, most local restaurants have signs warning you not to leave personal property in the car. Sometimes the signs even specifically mention laptops. Over the past couple of months, I've heard stories of several laptops being stolen from cars in parking lots. And one evening, when we were at happy hour and discussions about the cops in parking lot came up, it was noted that they were there because there had been repeated break-ins.

It was in this manner that Mr. Thinkpad was stolen. He was boosted from the passenger area of a car, window smashed, laptop grabbed, thief and laptop into the get-away car, and away. Mr. Thinkpad probably thought he was safe in the same way that novice campers may believe that bears or racoons won't take food of their tents or their cars. Unfortunately, glass provides little security and SUVs, wagons and hatchbacks live under greater threat as access to the cabin provides access to everything -- there is no real out-of-sight.

Most of what Mr. Thinkpad took with him was in the cloud, as many of our processes have moved that way. There were several active presentations underway that were lost, possibly more, but when it comes to work systems, Mr. Thinkpad was probably backed up more consistently than most. And the concern? Other than for the active presentation, perhaps the greatest concern raised was for the glass in the SUV as the vehicle was new.

In the days and the weeks that followed, a new system was spec'd, ordered, and arrived around the time when Mr. Air would disappear. In fact, Mr. Thinkpad's relative was sitting on a desk, still in the box, when Mr. Air vanished. Mr. Air was abducted, seized from the desk in a daring mid-day entry into our office around 1:00pm. The thief walked in through a normally locked door that was propped open slightly to facilitate international visitors going back and forth to the bathroom. This inside of a semi-secure building with cameras and a guard who often hangs out at the front desk in the lobby -- the illusion of security. The disappearance of Mr. Air was such a surprise that, people in the office thought that maybe somebody had played a joke, hiding him for amusement.

While Mr. Air was not a work system, work was sometimes done on him. It's one of those crazy things -- sometimes work doesn't invest in tools for the work environment and you find yourself working on a system that's five or six years old -- functional, but heavy, slow, and hitting the limits of it's capacity. When Mr. Air did do work, most of it was shared back and forth through the cloud, meaning that no work was lost. At the same time, what Mr. Air did carry from work was the password and keys to a host of systems that all needed to be reset.

But the greater loss with the disappearance of Mr. Air was the personal data. Not only did Mr. Air hold the passwords for work systems, he also carried passwords for all of the home projects. And then there's all of that other personal stuff, like taxes. Mr. Air was not backed up. Mr. Air's predecessor, Mr. MacBook Pro had been time-machined shortly before his surprising, untimely passing, but in a strange twist, the drive used to back up Mr. MacBook experienced disk problems in the weeks following Mr. MacBook's passing. So, also lost with Mr. Air was nearly a year's worth of activities.

In the hours and days following Mr. Air's disappearance, the main questions tended to surround aspects of Mr. Air: Wasn't he backed up? Didn't he use a password? Did he have "Find my Mac" enabled?

And, in the days following Mr. Air's disappearance, there were continued postmortem reports on the thief -- they got him on video, they could see the car on video -- as though this would provide comfort or a return of Mr. Air. Additionally, it was noted that, "it's too bad it wasn't a work system."

A cost-conscious business might question or nuance the liability, or hold no responsibility for events and property under their roof. But that same line of questioning might lead to larger questions like what is reasonable to expect from an employer or an office environment. And with the Internet, broadband and online collaboration tools, is it necessary to subject people to unpleasant aspects of a shared office environment. And while many businesses offer features like gourmet kitchens, free sodas, or Xbox gaming areas, is a base level of security a reasonable expectation?
The storyteller makes no choice 
Soon you will not here his voice
 - Terrapin Station
I don't have any good take-aways from all of this. Much has already been taken. I will say that, from a broader perspective, the entire experience has prompted me to reevaluate a number of my views on company culture. Here's hoping you find insights along a gentler path.

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