The case of the paranoid partner and the ruined laptop

In this IT tale, efficiency is a no-no for a techie at a law firm attempting to recover data from a partner's broken laptop

At the time of this story, I was working in the tech department of a law firm that had several partners.

I was tasked with performing laptop inventory. The last laptop ended up being checked out to one of the senior partners, but he also had one of the newest laptops issued to him in the recent weeks.

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I asked my manager if we shouldn't try and have the older laptop back to close this year's inventory? My manager said we could ask, but as a partner, he could not be forced to return his laptop. I sent an email to the partner, cc'ing my manager, asking for the return of the old laptop so that our inventory for the year could be closed.

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I received an email back that he would bring the laptop in the next Monday, but it was in terrible shape and not to expect it to be in operational condition. I assured him that we simply needed to account for the laptop and, if he wasn't using it, to remove it from inventory.

The partner did not respond, and on Monday, I went to his office to pick up the laptop. I introduced myself to his legal secretary and she announced me. The partner came from his office holding the laptop monitor in one hand and the lower part of the laptop in the other.

I took the two pieces of the laptop, holding them at their edges because they were covered with a mixture of sand, a sticky substance like dried soda, and what looked like paper pieces.

I've been an actor in a few plays and I believe I did the worst job of hiding my surprise at receiving the laptop in this state. The partner shot me a dismissive look and turned away to go back to his office.

I realized I was just standing there with this poor excuse for a company laptop and felt I had to say something, so I stuttered out, "Do you need the data on the drive recovered?"

The partner stopped, and I swear his shoulders almost went up like I had said something awful. He swiveled and said, "Do you think you can get anything from that drive?" He said the word "anything" like an accusation.

I said, "Well, these drives are enclosed in the housing, this brand of laptop has a nice slam/bounce locking feature, and with the recovery tools we have for forensics, it's possible."

I continued, "I can send you a list of what the hard drive has, begin recovery, and burn the data to disk -- whatever you say to go after."

The partner raised his eyebrows (and I might add I was very satisfied this had somehow turned the conversation in what felt like was my favor), and said, "Why don't you see what you can recover and let me know?" And he closed his office door.

I was on the fourth or fifth floor and our IT office was on the bottom floor, so it took me a few minutes to get downstairs.

As I walked in, carrying the laptop like it was a dead rat and holding the pieces by the corners, I expected to share with my fellow IT workers my story and my "show and tell" laptop. Instead, my manager came out of her office and headed right for me.

She said, "No need to recover the hard drive data, the partner just called down and said there was nothing on there they needed, so take the hard drive out and give it to me."

This was completely out of the norm. All the laptops we had recovered for the inventory were stored with their hard drives, so why was this one being singled out?

My manager looked at the pieces of the laptop I was holding, and I turned them so that she could see that the sticky mixture was covering both sides of each piece and throughout the keyboard. She asked me to come into her office with the laptop.

When we were inside her office with the door closed, she said, "This laptop is in the worst shape I have ever seen, you'd be lucky if you could reuse the RAM. Why did you think the hard drive was going to be recoverable?" Before I could respond, she went on to tell me the partner had called down in what she thought was a panic because I had said data on the hard drive might be recoverable.

I said I simply was shocked that the laptop was in this state and had asked about recovering the data because I had assumed the laptop had been in some accident, and if there was case data on the drive we might be able to recover it instead of re-creating it.

My manager said the partner had told her that sometimes being too efficient can be a detriment and there are times when data shouldn't be recovered, so destroy the drive and send him the pieces.

I was given the task of disassembling the laptop, extracting the hard drive, and removing the platter from the hard drive body so that there was no chance that anything could be recovered.

To this day, I still wonder what could have been that important to cause such a ruckus.

This story, "The case of the paranoid partner and the ruined laptop," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more crazy-but-true stories in the anonymous Off the Record blog at InfoWorld.com.

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