Keep your private data safe from prying eyes at the repair shop

No one enjoys taking a computer, smartphone or tablet to be fixed, but at some point we all face the prospect of schlepping some broken gear into a repair shop.

Complicating matters is that our personal and business lives are stored on these machines, as well as on Web-based services they’re configured to access. When you hand your hardware to a technician, you’re putting a lot of trust in that person’s hands: Will your data be safe?

“Safe” has two meanings here: Will you get it back intact, and will the repair shop’s employees look through your files? If you’ve got a backup of your information – and you do have a backup, right? – you’re good in terms of data integrity.

But what about the integrity of the technician? How do your protect yourself from prying eyes, unauthorized downloads or even espionage? Based on a recent study by researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, you’d be smart to take precautions.

The study, spotted via Ars Technica, found that workers at repair shops snooped on personal data more than half the time. And if the owner of the gear was female, it happened more often than that.

It’s important to know that the study only looked at a dozen commercial shops where laptops with purposely disabled audio drivers were left. But the percentage of instances in which personal data was accessed – based on logging software installed on each computer – is concerning.

There are other interesting aspects about repair-shop privacy issues in the study, which is worth reading in its entirety at

If you’re a technologically adept person, you may be able to repair a computer yourself, depending on the issue. But for those who are not, or if the issue is beyond your skills, it helps to have a strategy to keep private things private when asking someone else to fix it.

I faced this issue last year when my 27-inch iMac developed a problem with its cooling fans. After my attempts to fix it failed, I carted it off to the nearest Apple Store.

But this personal iMac also serves as my work machine. It’s got notes from stories, source contact information, along with personal documents, photos and media files. Some of this stuff goes back decades and is not something I want a random person pawing through.

Here’s what I did to prepare my computer for repair. (These tips also apply to Windows-based systems.) In most cases, they’re only something you can do if your system is working well enough to use it.

• Update everything. First, I made certain that everything on the computer was up to date. I typically keep the operating systems updated regularly on both my Windows and Mac computers, but sometimes I don’t get around to updating all the apps. Doing this may also help with troubleshooting. On a Windows PC, make sure your hardware drivers are up to date.

• Make a backup. As I said earlier, you’re a smart person, so you obviously already have a backup of your data. Right? RIGHT?

If you do not, swallow your shame, stop what you’re doing and get one started. Both Mac and Windows have built-in backup software, and also let you back up to cloud services (OneDrive on Windows, iCloud Backup on Mac). It’s a good idea to have both a cloud backup and another saved to an external drive. 

You’ll need the backup for some of the other steps.

If you have not encrypted your computer’s drive, do that, too. On the Mac, the whole-drive encrypting feature is called FileVault. On Windows, it’s BitLocker. This prevents someone from copying the entire contents of your computer to an external drive for later snooping.

• Create a separate login. There are two benefits to setting up an additional account on your computer. First, it’s a good troubleshooting tool – if your computer’s doesn’t happen in the new account, then it likely has to do with the software associated with your regular account.

Also, setting up a separate account login and password means you don’t have to give your primary credentials to the repair shop, particularly if the issue is hardware-related. In my case, I named the account “For Apple” so it would be clear as to which account they should use.

In addition, I’d run diagnostics on my Mac that generated reports showing the problem. I put a copy of the reports in a folder on the desktop of the new account for the techs to peruse (though Apple and most other repair shops have their own diagnostic apps).

• Remove your most sensitive data. Here’s where having that backup comes in. I made sure I had up-to-date drive- and cloud-based backups, then I deleted the contents of my critical folders – Documents, Downloads, Desktop and others. (Another option is to encrypt or lock those folders so a password is required to open them.) I also cleared my browser history and signed out of syncing accounts on my browsers, which removed saved passwords.

Next, I signed out of iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive and other data-syncing services. Typically, that process provides the option to leave synced files in their respective folders, or remove them. I chose the latter. Signing back in later restores them.

And don’t forget to empty the Trash/Recycle Bin!

• Sign out of key accounts. Most computer users leave themselves signed in to apps and services that provide quick access to personal info, such as email, social media, music and video services and browser-syncing features. Some experts recommend uninstalling software you use for super-sensitive data, such as password managers, financial management and tax-preparation apps. The uber-paranoid might want to uninstall all web browsers.

Once all this is done, power down the computer, pack it in its box (assuming you saved it) along with power cables and adapters, and if it’s a desktop, include the keyboard. At the repair shop, point out the account you created and make sure the tech has the password. I find it helpful to give the tech a detailed, written description of the problem, as well.

When repairs are complete and your machine is working as it should, restore the deleted files from your drive or cloud backup, reinstall any apps you removed, sign into your services and put everything back in order. I decided to keep the additional login as a test account, which has come in useful several times.

Once you’re up and running, you know what to do, right?

Make a new backup.

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