This is not the Windows 10 you are looking for
March 12, 2018 9:54 PM   Subscribe

I've been out of work for about a month. When I returned this week, my computer had been wiped clean, it seems. How can this happen?

My computer is a Dell - bought in 2015. It is running on Windows 10, I believe. It was password protected to log-in and had just gotten it's anti-virus renewed, but it is located in a very public place. When I left a month ago, it seemed fine. When I came back in to work this week it started fine but rather than taking me to the log-in page it just went straight to a general Windows desktop with no log-in. There was no option to log-out, there were no "users" listed or available. It was just a generic Windows desktop - it looked like it had been reset to factory settings - I even had "Candy Crush" listed again in my menu, which was deleted back when I got it in 2015. I asked around, and no one reportedly has used my computer since I left.

Could this have happened on it's own, or was someone tinkering with my computer? Is there anything I can do to get my log-in (and files!) back?

Complicating factors - though I don't keep anything interesting on my computer, I do work at a place that has been targeted by hackers and somewhat malicious entities in the past. It would not be completely outlandish for someone to have come in while I was out and try to access my computer, put spyware on it or otherwise mess with it. I'm hoping though that this was just Windows 10 being Windows 10?
posted by Toddles to Technology (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Possibly your computer had something happen to it that necessitated it be reimaged, such as a hard disk failure. But you should be asking your company's IT department about this, not strangers on the Internet. We really have no idea what happened, but it certainly isn't just "Windows 10 being Windows 10."
posted by kindall at 10:17 PM on March 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

But you should be asking your company's IT department about this, not strangers on the Internet.

Should have said this - we don't have an IT department. Small company :(
posted by Toddles at 10:23 PM on March 12, 2018

Someone I know had this happen recently during a Windows automatic update, and he'd been kicked to a temporary profile because his regular profile had been corrupted during the update. Not knowing anything about temporary profiles, he just set everything back up, moved his important files to the new profile, and then was a VERY SAD PANDA when he discovered that temp profiles are automatically purged on reboot.
posted by xyzzy at 10:38 PM on March 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

Is there anything I can do to get my log-in (and files!) back?

First thing is to find out whether Windows has in fact been fully reset, or whether this is merely a busted profiles issue. Check the contents of This PC -> Local Disk (C:) -> Users and see whether your old user profile still exists.

If it does, you will probably be denied access if you attempt to navigate inside it, but at least you will know not to go the nuke and pave before giving somebody with Windows admin competence a chance to get your stuff back for you.

If in doubt, report the contents of the Users folder here for further advice.
posted by flabdablet at 10:45 PM on March 12, 2018

he'd been kicked to a temporary profile because his regular profile had been corrupted during the update

When I've seen this happen, Windows does not skip the login step and go straight from boot to desktop.
posted by flabdablet at 10:46 PM on March 12, 2018

I've seen Windows autoboot into the wrong profile if it's been allowed to do so. Happened to a computer I was working on. I cleared the saved login password from the wrong account so it would, at the least, prompt which user to log in. Later, and I'm sorry I don't recall how, I persuaded it to autologin to the correct account. There was much rejoicing.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:26 PM on March 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

Later, and I'm sorry I don't recall how, I persuaded it to autologin to the correct account.

Automatic logins are clearly the Wrong Thing for any computer with poor physical security (and arguably for any computer at all), but if you must have them, the Sysinternals Autologon utility is the most straightforward way I know for achieving that.

If this is a Windows profile issue, persuading Windows to log in to the correct user account is only half the battle; you also need to convince it that it's OK to use the correct profile for that account. I've done this by editing the Registry.

But none of this stuff should be blindly tried out on spec, especially by people whose customary interaction with computers do not involve firing up Regedit. It's really really important to work out exactly what has gone wrong before trying to fix it, because applying inapplicable fixes to a broken system will only ever break it worse.
posted by flabdablet at 11:44 PM on March 12, 2018

had just gotten it's anti-virus renewed ... I'm hoping though that this was just Windows 10 being Windows 10?

There's a nonzero chance that this issue was actually caused by your antivirus suite, especially if that happens to be from McAfee, Norton/Symantec or Trend.
posted by flabdablet at 11:46 PM on March 12, 2018

If you have no IT support at your workplace and have no friendly local expert to help you and are thus more or less obliged to seek help from strangers on internet, there are fora dedicated to this kind of help, both free and with a registration fee. Two of these dedicated to Microsoft issues, which I have frequented for many years, are Windows BBS and Windows Secrets. You might like to see whether they inspire you.
posted by aqsakal at 12:13 AM on March 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

The profile thing happened to me with a windows 10 update a few weeks ago. The computer booted up into a new profile and everything was “gone” or so it seemed. But all the files were still there, something was just wrong with the user login. I also had to fiddle with the login profiles for a while to get things working again.

I’m computer savvy and no third party antivirus — this was clearly a Windows 10 update bug. Use Windows Explorer and start identifying your files before rebooting anymore. If you haven’t done this before maybe find a friend with some experience. I have a strong hunch everything is still there but the above anecdote about losing the old profile on reboot is scary.
posted by friendofstone at 3:01 AM on March 13, 2018

the above anecdote about losing the old profile on reboot is scary

To be clear, what happens in that instance is that it's the new, temporary profile that's lost on reboot. Which is why moving files out of the old profile (the one Windows is treating is corrupted, even though it very probably isn't) and into the new one, which you probably don't even realize is temporary, is a mistake.

The "corruption" that Windows detects is generally an inability to read the registry hive files that reside inside a user's profile. This can be due to many things, most of them having to do with those hive files being already in use and therefore locked at the time Windows tries to read them, and very few having anything to do with actual corruption of those files; Windows is just stupid like that.

Having once failed to read a registry hive file from a user's profile folder, Windows then makes changes elswhere in the registry that force it not to use that profile folder in any way until your local exasperated IT support person cleans up its mess.

TL,DR: when Windows does something bizarre and unexpected, and you're trying to fix it, don't ever move your stuff after finding out where Windows has sequestered it. Copy it instead. If you don't have room to copy it, wait until you've plugged in an external drive to give yourself room. And use the whole sad farce as an opportunity to ponder your backup strategy.
posted by flabdablet at 3:17 AM on March 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

I've had this (or something similar, I'm not sure if I'm remembering quite right) happen after a Windows update. It turned out to be a corrupted user profile issue, and while I don't remember the exact solution it involved making a new profile and then going into the filesystem of my original profile and fixing something manually so that Windows 10 would see it again. I'd start googling around "Windows 10 corrupted user profile" and see what turned up.

This article offers a few possible solutions. Your comfort level as far as actually employing them may vary, but it might be worth taking a look. All may not be lost; good luck.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:39 AM on March 13, 2018

If Windows has trouble loading your existing profile, it will create a new generic profile. It usually gives a brief message saying it loaded a default profile. Your data, as you discovered, is still there, and Windows will sometimes log you back in to the correct profile. I work in IT; this is a very common issue.

So, mostly, not a crisis. But an excellent reminder to back up your data. I haven't used the Win10 automatic backup and OneDrive for a year, but I did not have a good feeling about it. There are lots of backup options. Pick a backup plan ideally have a 2ndary backup of critical data, stick to it.
posted by theora55 at 6:57 AM on March 13, 2018

microsoft also 'accidentally' pushed a Windows 10 (1709) upgrade to tons of computers last week running Windows 10 (1607 or 1703), which may be the source of your profile corruption. i work in IT at a college and it's been a major PIA for our frozen labs.
posted by noloveforned at 8:55 AM on March 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

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