So did you find a new MacBook Air on a plane the other day?
April 23, 2013 9:09 PM   Subscribe

Lost my MacBook Air with sensitive files on the SSD. How worried should I be?

I left my MacBook Air in the seat-back pouch of a Southwest Airlines flight. I filed lost and found reports with the airline and the airport, but it has been almost two weeks, and it seems pretty clear that it's gone forever. I seriously doubt that anyone will be able to login to my account, BUT one thing has me very worried. I was doing my taxes on the computer, and I had PDFs of my tax returns (2006 - 2012) in the Skydrive folder on the laptop. They are not password protected. (I know, I know ...)

Given that I know very little about Macs, my questions are: (1) If someone logs into the computer using the guest account, surely the operating system would not let them into the files of my user account, right? Right?!? (2) Given that MacBooks are hard to crack open, and the data is on a SSD, is it not highly likely that someone who had decided to keep the machine would just wipe the OS and reinstall it fresh? (3) I guess what I'm asking is, how worried should I be about the SSNs and financial information of everyone in my household sitting unprotected on my lost Mac? Pretend you know all about Macs and you're the kind of asshole that would keep the MacBook Air you found on a plane. What would you do with it?
posted by Crotalus to Computers & Internet (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I would boot to Ubuntu on a flash drive and explore the hard drive for sensitive files. If they aren't encrypted, which they aren't by default, I would then have your financial information.

Edit: To actually answer your specific questions:
1) Correct (pretty sure)
2) I don't know
3) Someone could get it if they had a little computer knowledge

The thing is, a random person who keeps a found laptop isn't necessarily likely to be an identity thief. They would probably just wipe it and re-sell it, or wipe it and keep it for themselves, because, hey, free laptop.

Note: I am not a thief. I would return it.
posted by grahamsletter at 9:15 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't know about the security stuff, but can you use Find My Mac to either locate it, lock it, or erase it?
posted by xedrik at 9:16 PM on April 23, 2013

Response by poster: Oh, crap. Booting with a live Linux distro never occurred to me. ...
posted by Crotalus at 9:17 PM on April 23, 2013

Response by poster: Can't use Find My Mac, because I never set up iCloud. The computer is checked out to me, but it belongs to my employer. I only used it when I travel, since I'm used to Windows.
posted by Crotalus at 9:21 PM on April 23, 2013

Assuming it's an Air with a thunderbolt port (newer than 2011) and the thief has access to a second thunderbolt-equipped mac, the internal hdd can be mounted in Target Disk Mode.

I agree with grahamsletter though -- the odds of a random person who gets your machine being an identity thief, or having the correct connections to sell it to someone who is -- intuitively seem low to me.

Do try Find My Mac, if you've got an Apple ID registered to it!
posted by Alterscape at 9:21 PM on April 23, 2013

Given that this was a crime of opportunity, my guess is that the person has either kept it themselves, or gave it to their kid, or sold it to someone for $100. I doubt any of those people care how much you earn or pay in taxes.

Someone with a regular laptop theft operation might have a guy he sells social security numbers to, but I doubt in this case there is much to worry about. Maybe you can put a fraud lock on your credit report (so they have to call you if any new credit is applied for), but that's about it.
posted by gjc at 9:22 PM on April 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Well, if your mac was set up by your employer and the drive encrypted with filevault you have almost nothing to worry about. With that said you should plan on doing the usual password shuffle with everything.

Ask your employer if they set up the machines with filevault.
posted by iamabot at 10:30 PM on April 23, 2013

Pretend you know all about Macs and you're the kind of asshole that would keep the MacBook Air you found on a plane. What would you do with it?

I've said this before on AskMe, and Gjc nailed it above. Identity theft isn't a crime of opportunity. If I were you I'd be paranoid and want to take every precaution under the sun, and there are indeed precautions you can take. But if I were your spouse or sibling or best friend, I would have a calmer head and I'd tell you not to worry about your tax returns. Your computer's new owner is going to wipe the drive and sell it to a pawn shop or do something equally selfish and inconsiderate with it, but that's the extent of your bad luck here. It's unlikely that the next guy in 17F happened to be an identity thief having a lucky day.
posted by cribcage at 10:46 PM on April 23, 2013

No-one cares about your data, sorry. Unless you were targetted, which you weren't. Don't worry about it.

But: you're extremely irresponsible not encrypting your laptop with FileVault2, which is free and built into Mac OS X. It has almost no performance impact and would have saved you.
posted by devnull at 12:38 AM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

The problem with Filevault2 is that if you use it you can now no longer use things like Undercover or Prey which provide some extra features that Find My Mac doesn't. So while I'd agree that not using FileVault2 or some recovery software is a bad idea they're sometimes mutually exclusive and you have to pick one.
posted by Runes at 4:29 AM on April 24, 2013

Sadly for you in this case, if you don't have encryption enabled then it is trivial to reset your password and get access to your files. I don't think you are necessarily at huge risk for identity theft, however, as gjc and cribcage mentioned.
posted by procrastination at 4:52 AM on April 24, 2013

Mod note: Just a reminder to stick to the actual questions rather than debating the merits of programs the OP could have used.
posted by taz (staff) at 4:59 AM on April 24, 2013

You have an understandable concern about your most sensitive files on a given computer, but a person who finds and decides to steal a computer has a file haystake on their hands. They are probably, very probably, only interested in either making it his/her own and getting rid of you entirely, or reselling it for a quick buck. Unless the Mac is going to toss the files into their lap, they may not have the patience to look through your files. This thief, assuming a thief and not a weird mishap that has your laptop permanently hidden inside an anonymous airplane, was an opportunity thief, a thief without intent, and it's not likely they're equipped to exploit an identity theft or some other fiscal exploitation. They could, true, sell it to someone who is so equipped but I don't think it's likely. If this was a targeted theft, then they got lucky and you're already screwed, but it's just not that probable.

In your shoes I would be more concerned if I had an online banking bookmark and a saved password in your browser. I would also have pain in my feet, because the likelihood is that you wear shoes too small for me. Do you? If so, I hope you've changed the password by now or suspended the account. (Just change the password.)

In any case, the files are probably not jumping out at the person on the computer unless they are definitely looking for financial information and have the patience to comb your drive.

I'm not familiar with the workings of Skydrive, precisely, but I take it to be a synching folder with cloud storage, perfect for air travel. Empty the drive (or refill it with encrypted folders if you must continue to use it) and potentially the folder will empty itself on the Mac, foiling a non-savvy user. If it's anything like dropbox, perhaps you can also chop off the Mac from the account, preventing any further synching. Change the password on that account.
posted by Sunburnt at 6:15 AM on April 24, 2013

I'd probably be more interested in grabbing and movies or music you had on there that I might be interested in, then in grabbing your SSN - mostly because I wouldn't really know what to do with it (I'm sure i could think of a few things, but I'd probably think it was too risky to bother).
posted by backwards guitar at 6:46 AM on April 24, 2013


The reality is that identity theft and such things are very real, however for it to occur, someone who is an identity thief would have to find your laptop. Chances of that are so slim, it probably approaches the average of identity theft writ large.

The reality is that, for all of our concerns about privacy, the majority of your data is just not interesting to anyone besides you. Chances are whoever found it wiped it, and is happily along their way.

My iPhone was stolen last year, and it had access to our company's DropBox, with everything from bank account details, to payment card numbers and security codes, etc (which are no longer stored on DropBox, thank you). I was so concerned that a 14 year old kid on a bike was going to plug into the greater London criminal underground, and all our bases are belong to them. I called the police and explained it to them.

The response: "Unlikely. Chances are it will never even show up on Find My iPhone. They'll just wipe it and either keep it themselves or sell it on for a fifty." It never did show up on Find My iPhone. We never lost any money.

Now, I keep anything sensitive on a Seriously F*cking Encrypted TrueCrypt file on DropBox with a time out set of fifteen minutes. And now I no longer worry.

Consider this a $1,000 lesson and not much more than that. If they do come after you, it doesn't really matter how they got the information. It's still illegal to steal, and you'll have the same recourse as if they didn't steal your laptop.
posted by nickrussell at 7:36 AM on April 24, 2013

Yeah, if I were to steal a MacBook, I would utterly wipe the drive before I even connected it to the internet for fear that you might have set up Find My Mac. So many stories of idiots getting busted by using stolen computers under the original owner's identity.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:56 AM on April 24, 2013

Not a direct answer [mods delete if desired] but sometimes strangers return your stuff. I returned a serviceman's kindle fire about six months ago after finding it in the plane. Long shot, sure; but not everyone is hard hearted.

I booted into his kindle just long enough to get his email address and write him. If you're lucky, the same may happen with you.
posted by digitalprimate at 8:45 AM on April 24, 2013

I'd bet a month's pay (yes, I would) that whoever found it is not booting Ubuntu on a flash drive and looking for sensitive files. And most people wouldn't know what to do with or want to risk using someone else's SSN - that's a big deal, a lot bigger deal than keeping an Air you find on a plane.

You lost it on a plane and not in a McDonalds, so odds are even better that it was an average person who found it and either doesn't know what to do with it, wiped it because OMG what if they track this!, or wiped it clean.

Expensive lesson, and I would also be freaking out if it were me. In fact, I have some things to go erase and/or password protect right now, thank you very much.

Put a fraud alert on your credit, just in case.
posted by KAS at 11:48 AM on April 24, 2013

Yeah seconding Devils Rancher above - if my evil twin found a laptop on a plane and decided to keep it (really? talk about bad karma!) he'd make pretty darn sure to wipe the disk before connecting to the internet.

The only problem is if it was actually swiped by the airplane cleaning staff - trying not to over-generalize, but given the stories about thefts from checked baggage, they might actually have the contacts to hand it off to more organized theft rings. I'd guess the chances of this are low - it's a high-risk thing to do, and this could be a sting operation run by the local cable channel because who leaves an expensive laptop behind on a plane? (You, apparently. Sorry.)

Now you've made me extra-paranoid about leaving my laptop in sleep mode while on planes. But overall, not that much of a risk, I think.
posted by RedOrGreen at 12:54 PM on April 24, 2013

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