Should apple require my hard drive to fix my graphic card?
November 12, 2009 6:26 PM   Subscribe

The graphics card in my macbook pro failed, which happens at a "higher than normal" rate. Apple agrees that's the problem. Still, they want me to leave my hard drive in the computer when I give it to them for repairs. How diligent are they about protecting your data from theft and ill-use? If data on your hard drive somehow gets set free while visiting apple-land, it doesn't violate the Applecare terms of service (pdf). "[apple is not liable for...] the failure to maintain the confidentiality of data" (section 4). In section 7f, "You agree that any information or data disclosed to Apple under this Plan is not confidential." My hard drive is backed up, but I don't want to risk someone having access to all my personal info. Should I put up a fight?

Here's the background; feel free to skip it.

I'm a former IT person, and the diagnosis of graphic card failure seems pretty straightforward to me. All symptoms match. My hard drive is backed up, but I'm worried about my personal info being in the hands of others, especially after stories like this of hard drives full of data going MIA during service. How should I handle my upcoming interaction with the techs in the apple store?

The computer is still under applecare. When I talked with Applecare telephone support, they confirmed the diagnosis but said I needed to send the hard drive in with the system. After reading the terms of service, I was pretty reluctant. I didn't push very hard for them to make an exception. Thinking that I might have more luck in person, and with in-person contact with a geek, I made a genius bar appointment.

My position is that apple should be willing to fix my computer without my hard drive in it, since the problem is clear and isn't related to the hard drive. Every computer repair service has spare hard drives used for troubleshooting. The macbook pro hard drive is end-user replaceable, so I'm not violating any warranty by removing it. Sure, if I screw up the removal, it's my problem, but I'm ok with that.

What I'm not ok with is this: for my data to be relatively secure in this case, I must take the time to securely wipe the hard drive and reinstall the OS, and then restore all my data when I get the computer back. In fairness to apple, I imagine that asking for the hard drive generally makes sense since a problem is often not clearly defined before the system is received. And we users aren't always the most reliable or knowledgeable reporters.

Nevertheless, my current plan is to take the hard drive out before I go to the Apple Store. I expect my approach will be in the self-deprecating vein to begin: I'll admit that I'm being a bit of a curmudgeon and ask them to indulge me. I've had terrific interactions with the Genius boys (are they all male in every store?) in the past, and I'm hopeful that they would at least by sympathetic to my position.

Is my request reasonable? Is there a better approach?
posted by manduca to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Is there a reason you're unwilling to just format the drive and put a blank OSX install back on there? If you have a full image back up the using something like time machine you could just restore when you get your fixed machine back.
posted by mge at 6:33 PM on November 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I'm a Mac tech (albeit not working with Apple in one of their repair depots), and it would make my job a lot easier if you'd just format your drive (use Disk Utility to zero-fill/random-fill if you like) and give it to me blank. If you care enough to pull the drive out and try and talk them into it, this is a much easier way to protect your data.

Alternatively, FileVault.
posted by aaronbeekay at 6:42 PM on November 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

(To answer your tangential question: My local Genius Bar seems to have more female than male employees.)
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 6:44 PM on November 12, 2009

Is there a reason you don't want to just encrypt your home directory and let them screw around with the guest account? I see where you're coming from but I see easier ways to maybe approach this without doing what they told you not to do. Alternately toss in an old HD if you have one so at least the machine has a hard drive. I agree that your analysis is likely correct and I'm generally impressed with Apple's willingness to solve the problem and not make you step through idiot flow charts, that said you may wind up with a Genius who isn't somehow authorized to take a HD-less laptop and then where are you?
posted by jessamyn at 6:45 PM on November 12, 2009

Response by poster: Quick note: I can't wipe the drive because the computer crashes on boot.
posted by manduca at 6:52 PM on November 12, 2009

Do you have or can you borrow a spare laptop hard drive? I know a few people who have old no-longer-used laptops lying around, and you may too. Pull yours, do a basic OSX install on the spare, and bring it in with that drive - if it's user-replaceable that shouldn't be a problem.
posted by pocams at 6:52 PM on November 12, 2009

I think it would be reasonable to ask to take the hard drive with you. They have drives they can boot from. Just say you have work related stuff that you can't part with.
posted by starman at 6:55 PM on November 12, 2009

If you have access to another Mac and a Firewire cable you might be able to boot your laptop in target disk mode and mount the drive that way.
posted by serathen at 6:59 PM on November 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Filevault, then make a new account for the techs to use. That's what I did when I needed a display replacement. All they need to do is log in and make sure everything works before handing it back to you.
posted by caution live frogs at 7:11 PM on November 12, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the great suggestions and info.

I'm wish Apple had statement to the effect of: here's how we try to keep your data from going on walkabout. We do our best, but it's a lot of hard drives, and a lot of factors, so you're taking a risk. Then hit me with the legalese. I like having a sense of what kind of risk I'm taking.

@Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese: thanks for addressing the itch of curiosity.

The target disk boot might be the best option, given what I've got available.
posted by manduca at 7:12 PM on November 12, 2009

Best answer: Do not toss in an old hard drive, or take it in without a hard drive, unless you want to either pay a ridiculous amount of money to Apple for replacement with an "Apple certified" drive, or you want your MBP to come back un-repaired. I tried this, and this is the sad little saga that resulted:

I'm an IT professional who uses his MBP for work, and I just had to go through exactly this a few weeks ago - my MacBook Pro died due to the nVidia issue (MacBook Pro 3,1), and because Apple can't keep enough logic boards in stock, they required me to send it away to get the board replaced. The first time I had to do this, I made the mistake of asking the tech at the Apple store to put in a spare HD that I had from my stack and return my original, which has a lot of data which I'm contractually obligated to care for. After charging me $100 for the swap and shipping the machine off, Apple called to inform me that in order to service my computer, they were going to have to charge me $950 to swap in a new Apple-certified hard drive before the repair could be completed. That's right - $950 for a 160GB drive and an operation that takes about 20 minutes. They sent the MBP back unrepaired and with internal connections disconnected, and would not give me a refund for the work the tech did. I swapped my original drive back myself after it came back, which was where I noticed that the repair center hadn't actually put everything back together correctly, and that nothing had been replaced. There's a bit more to the saga than that, but suffice it to say I am spectacularly unimpressed with Apple, AppleCare, and the way they treat their customers.

The second time I sent the laptop in (the issue was intermittent, it fixed itself until I was in the middle of a business trip to maximize inconvenience, etc), I made sure that the original 160GB "Apple-certified" Fujitsu drive was in there, and that it had undergone a 3-pass wipe so the same bunch of ninnys that couldn't be arsed to put the computer back together right before shipping it to me the first time wouldn't be perusing my sensitive data and my customer's sensitive data. This worked out, and the computer was actually shipped back to me with a fresh copy of the OS on the drive, so fair warning that they will indeed reformat your hard drive for you if they so choose.

Based on my experience, here's what I'd do:

1) Never ever admit to opening up your MBP. That violates the warranty, and the "Genius Bar" people will occasionally call you on it.
2) When you sign that piece of paper saying that Apple is not responsible for lost or stolen data, take them at their word.
3) Use the opportunity to upgrade hard drives. Wipe the old drive and leave it in, put the data on the new drive, swap drives when you get the machine back, and keep the original drive as a service spare. If you have no drive or a non-Apple drive in the machine, Apple will not service your computer until you pay a ridiculously punishing sum to have them put an "Apple-certified" drive in there. If the resident "Genius" tells you otherwise, he's wrong, I can guarantee this.
4) Expect the repair to take about a week. I sent mine in on a Friday, and got it back the following Friday.
5) Don't expect AppleCare to be able to give you a tracking number for your machine, or to know much about where it is in the process until it actually ships out. I couldn't even get a tracking number until it showed up on a doorstep.

Also, although I know you're probably not interested in this, I had one more thing that I'm going to do in the future:

6) Buy a Thinkpad or Dell next time and get the priority or on-site service. My experience with other laptop manufacturers is that they don't seem to mind when I upgrade components without paying punitive prices for their specially-stickered overpriced shite. I like OS X, I like Apple hardware, but the way they handled my case was unprofessional, unacceptable, and unfriendly. I sincerely wish you have better luck with your repair than I had with mine, as mine has completely turned me away from buying more products from Apple.
posted by hackwolf at 7:26 PM on November 12, 2009

I think your request is reasonable. Even if they take every possible precaution to protect your data, it's impossible to predict if the contents of your computer's hard drive will be mishandled by a dishonest employee. Rather than waste time worrying about it, keep a spare drive around and clone your current operating system onto it -- minus your private data. When your computer needs servicing, swap your real drive with the clone before handing it over.

I use and recommend SuperDuper.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 7:32 PM on November 12, 2009

They want a hard drive in the machine when they service it. Nothing says there needs to be an OS or anything else. Why not backup with time machine, securely wipe the drive, and send it in for service? When it comes back, just restore the backup. It really shouldn't take too much extra time, and you can let the wipe--the slow part--run overnight. If you don't want Apple to have any of your data, this is the price you pay.

Otherwise, perhaps you could consider creating an encrypted disk image and placing your important files in there. That would keep your main stuff safe without much hassle.

In my experience, while many of the folks at the Genius Bar are super nice and helpful people, I have also found that the job (especially the Genius Bar supervisors) also tends to attract a certain breed of power-hungry assholes who are sticklers for policy and phenomenally uncaring about anything that doesn't fit into their checklists. It's as though some of these people have the ability to channel the wrath of Steve Jobs without any of the intelligence. If you get the latter kind of Genius, you will be in for a considerable ordeal when you are, in fact, in the right. For a special situation like this, forget about it. Good luck!
posted by zachlipton at 9:35 PM on November 12, 2009

The legalese is just the world we live in, and I imagine any well-run high-volume repair operation (and Apple's mail-in repairs for portables are done by contracted vendors that service many brands) would have similar language in their TOS, even if they have a whole host of best practices set up to keep your data where it belongs.

That said, if you're genuinely worried about this you could either:
-mount your MBP's internal drive from another Mac via target disk mode, clone it, and then wipe it with however many passes of random data you need to help you sleep at night. If the Apple repair depot gets a computer sent with no OS installed, you'll get it back with the most current revision of the major OS X version it shipped with installed.
-find a local Authorized Service Center; someone who is not Apple but can do warranty repairs with genuine parts. This, ideally, would afford you the opportunity to possibly talk face-to-face with the tech who will be working on your machine, explain exactly how you want them to go about things, and not have to engage so fully with a large corporate monolith.
posted by kid_dynamite at 9:36 PM on November 12, 2009

If you had an IBM or Dell laptop, you could totally send it in sans hard drive and expect a prompt and full repair.

However, Apple does not do this, based on my experience.

You may be able to find an authorized Apple service center. They tend to be more lax with the rules, but you'll probably have to pony up a "diagnostic" fee.

I'd recommend you buy a USB to SATA/PATA dongle (they're like 20 bucks on newegg) and wipe the drive. Then put it back in and then deny you even know what a screwdriver looks like.

Then when the consumer reports survey shows up, give them the highest ratings possible. That has the be the biggest joke going.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:09 PM on November 12, 2009

Response by poster: I couldn't have asked for a better set of responses - thanks, everybody. Before I posted, I wasn't finding much from google on this topic. Maybe if I had searched on the NVidia issue...

Here's where it stands so far: I took it in to the store, running late, so I hadn't removed the HD. Had a great experience, lots of very helpful and creative suggestions from a few apple store folks, including my assigned genius (@zachlipton: phew) (also, my genius was a guy again; i looked with intent at the geniuses to confirm my previous impression, and yup, only guys tonight). They did a single-round format for me in target mode, saying they couldn't leave it running overnight for a real data wipe. But this was sufficient for my concerns: I doubt my personal data is THAT interesting. With the drive reformatted, theft would require someone is systematically using a restore tool on a stack of hard drives, and that's a chance I'm willing to take.

I've had very good luck with Time Machine system restore.

And I hate to say it and call fate's attention to the fact, but I've had great luck with my laptops so far. One toshiba, four dells, two apples. I've been happy with pretty much everything about the Apple paradigm until now, and I'm happy enough with this outcome. Hopefully they really fix it, and I don't have an experience like Pogo_Fuzzybutt's.

Still, i agree with hackwolf that it's much nicer to have on-site service. The last time I had it from Dell, it was reasonably priced. On the other hand, I don't mind sending my system out, but it irritates me that I should have to do something so time consuming as wipe and then restore my hard drive when it should be sufficient to remove the HD.

Here's the takeaway I've gotten from this: treat my hard drive like I'm going to leave it on the street at any moment. Encrypt anything I don't want to be public. Keep backups of the entire disk image (already done, but must stay diligent). Have a plan for access to a second computer if necessary.

Thanks again to everybody. And I will "deny you even know what a screwdriver looks like."
posted by manduca at 4:50 AM on November 13, 2009

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