Apple to Time Capsule Customers: All Your Files Are Belong to Us

64 Comments

Back In October ’09 I wrote an article about a disturbing failure-rate in Apple’s Time Capsules that was starting to gain some attention in the press. An apparent design flaw in the device was causing some units to die after about 12-18 months in operation. Reports on the Apple discussion forum at that time suggested the same flaw also affected Apple’s Airport Extreme, a device that shares an almost identical form factor.

In what would prove disastrously precognitive, I wrote:

Imagine, then, the pain when a well-used Time Capsule croaks, taking up to 18 months’ worth of incremental backups with it. I don’t mind admitting that the thought of it strikes fear into my heart. I use two Time Capsules every hour of every day.

I can’t help thinking that I don’t own two Time Capsules; I own two ticking Time bombs.

Fast forward to early last week when my Mac Pro’s 1TB Time Capsule breathed its last and died a sudden — if not entirely unexpected — death.

I called Apple Support and the guy on the other end of the phone asked me for the TC’s serial number. A moment later he confirmed Apple was aware of “a fault” with that model and offered to replace it for free. So far so good.

The process was explained to me; I would receive the replacement TC in a few days, whereupon I had to return the dead TC to Apple. Immediately alarm bells rang in my brain.

“But what about my stuff?” I asked. There was a year’s worth of data stuck on that thing. Finances, contacts, personal and shared calendars, photographs, email… I didn’t relish the thought of sending all of that data to someone I didn’t know. Not even if it was an Apple technician.

“Don’t worry, we will wipe the drive thoroughly for you,” offered the support guy, “It’s safe with us.”

No it isn’t, I worried. “Can’t I just remove the drive and wipe the data? I’ll put it back if necessary, only, I’m concerned about–”

“No. You must not open the unit. If you do, you will void the warranty.”

“It’s already out of warranty,” I replied as politely as possible, not wanting to sound like a jerk. “You’re replacing it because of a design flaw, right?”

The Apple Support guy wouldn’t budge. “If you open the case we will charge you the full price of a new Time Capsule.”

The bottom line; Apple forbade me from retrieving my data from their Time Capsule. Doing so would somehow make me responsible for its death, even though they admitted the product was already faulty.

Now, I understand Apple wanting to retrieve faulty gear for study. Doing so helps them improve their products. But this isn’t a broken mouse or keyboard. This is a device that stores a lot of valuable personal information. In this instance, shouldn’t Apple exercise a higher degree of flexibility and sensitivity to customers?

I know what you’re thinking; maybe they’d wipe it right before my eyes at the Apple Store? So I asked. He replied, “No. They’ll give you a replacement but they will send the faulty device back to us for wiping.”

So, either way, I get a replacement Time Capsule… but I have to surrender my personal data to Apple.

Trust

Apple sells a Time Capsule as part of a complete backup solution. Time Machine + Time Capsule = Backup. Right? The Time Capsule website even proclaims, “…you never have to worry about losing your important files.” I guess the small print needs to add “…except when you’re handing all your data to us.”

Apple's bold promise on their Time Capsule website

What’s more, in the days it took for the replacement to arrive, I had no satisfactory backup solution. Of course, it’s not Apple’s responsibility to ensure I always have a complete and reliable backup strategy in place, but it sure felt like Apple had let me down. (Yes, now I’m just ranting.)

Thankfully, Apple is doing the right thing by replacing (most) affected units, even if they’re out of warranty and not covered by AppleCare. Yet I can’t help feel that there’s more they could have done; starting with permitting me to take responsibility for my own data, rather than threatening me with a hefty charge to my credit card if I did so.

Apple normally pays close attention to the little details other companies miss, but here it feels like they failed to appreciate the single biggest issue – the proper handling of customer’s valuable personal data. If they had paid closer, more careful attention to that detail, I might not feel so indignant today… and I might still be recommending the Time Capsule to my friends. As it stands, the Time Machine + Time Capsule solution is great when it works. But if it breaks, customers may have to face zero backup functionality and a worrying lack of perspective from Apple when it comes to allowing them to take steps to secure their personal data.

Am I overreacting? Should I simply trust Apple with all my personal files, no questions asked? Leave a comment below to tell me I’m a shameless drama queen and how, like you, I should be using an offsite RAID array if I’m serious about backup.

64 Comments

Jay

Same here. Only I threw a big stink (politely) about how they stuck me, because they made no USB port to access the data directly. I couldn’t open the TC without breaking my warranty and I needed my data. I had a VERY sympathetic AC rep. After a week of going back and forth she sent me out a new TC without expecting my old one. I was then able to send off the old TC and recover my data. It cost me more than a new TC but it wasn’t recovery plus a TC.

Jeremy Scheller

I think the main reason Apple asks for you to not mess with it is because of accounting purposes.

If you open it up and they still give you a new free one, they can’t write it off as a loss, because they can’t confirm whether you broke it or they made it poorly.

When it comes back unopened, they can write off that freebie as a loss because they can show that they made the manufacturing error that led to the loss.

Either way it sucks to send in your data, but I did it too and am once again enjoying my Time Capsule.

Catmanrog

Having read all the TC problems reported over the past year, why on Earth would you not buy something reliable like a OWC Ministack V3 with Superduper to do backups. It’s beautifully reliable and about 40% less !

cory

yikes. I just got mine and have never heard of them dying so fast. is there a place on apple.com to check to see if mine is in the list of bad TCs?

Joe Chiarelli

As sad as this sounds, all critical ( security wise) data should be stored in encrypted sparse images IMHO.

I had a similar issue when my drive had issues on my iMac. They gladly fixed the issue, but wanted to keep the drive automatically.

I told them i had confidential corporate files on the drive and requested to purchase the drive or be given it to be borrowed for a week to securely wipe the data.

Luckly i got the second choice and was told i could keep the old drive.

Now all my stuff that i dont want people to read are stored in encryted sparse images.

I treat everything like its on a laptop. If someone steals it, the hardware is replacible but the data isnt.

Mark

Your concern is the same as those who send their laptop in for AppleCare. The solution is very simple either trust them or don’t ever exercise the warranty.

Stuff About Life

I just wanted to say that the phrase “tell me I’m a shameless drama queen” made me actually laugh out loud. And thanks for the link about the dead Time Capsule registry, it was interesting.

Perhaps a blend of two different backup options would be good – one external hard drive as a Time Machine volume, and for critital data, offsite backups with CrashPlan or a service like Backblaze. (I cannot recommend Mozy at all after having nothing but problems with them before)

Demian M

I had a similar problem now in December. I purchased a MacBook Pro in September and on Dec 22 my HD just went bust, bailed out on me during the finals of my Masters. Since it was still under warranty, I took it to Apple’s Authorized Service, where they told me the HD had to be replaced and assured me (twice!), after I asked, that the defective one would be returned to me, so I could try to recover my data. To my surprise, when I came back now in January to pick up my MacBook, my old HD didn’t come along. When I asked where it was, I got the disdainful response that Apple replaced it and kept it, that it couldn’t give it back to me, and that they never told me they would do so. On top of that, they said that if I wanted to recover my data, I had to have asked them for their services, which cost (!!!) over 1,000 Euros. I’m kinda just accepting the fact that I lost everything, because filing suit against them would really be a pain in the *ss…

Advait

Aw, that’s sad to hear: I’m sorry for your loss.

At least this’ll make you keep backups from now on
=)

SamD

I use the Time machine backup in manual mode daily by turning automatic backups off, but backing up when not otherwise using my machines.
I also keep all confidential data in encrypted sparse bundle disk images with a strong password. The data will get backed up incrementally but will not be readable to anyone without the password.
This is the same concern for the internal drives in a Mac mini or which can be a bit of a pain to get at, so if it has to go back under Apple care, no worries, because confidential data is encrypted.

Joe Chiarelli

I follow your same method. Safe and secure.

I used an app called Knox to manage the sparse images..

Nik

“I also keep all confidential data in encrypted sparse bundle disk images with a strong password.”

This sounds like a fantastic idea. Can you point me in the direction of how to do this?

Philip Bergen

My 1TB TC died after 19 months. Just like every other device on the Time Capsule Memorial.
I went to my dealer and they sent it away for repairs (in Denmark we have 24 months of repairs warranty if the unit fails because of a flaw that was in it at purchase). The clowns at http://www.elektronikcentret.dk/ took 14 days and then offered to repair it for me at the cost of 3424 DKK (~$650). This is roughly $5 MORE than a brand new dual antenna 2TB top of the line!
I refused their generous offer. Once returned I took it apart. The error was a simple leaking capacitor in the power supply. Clearly should have been covered by the warranty. Also should clearly not cost $650!! They could have charged me $25 for a new power supply and I would have taken that deal. It would take them less than 15 minutes to swap power supply and we would all be happy.
I love Apple’s products, but their post-purchase support is the worst in the world. The amount of crap they make us eat is unbelievable. Makes me crave for a proper hackintosh.
Every single unit I have purchased from Apple the last three years have failed before 24 months (4 laptops, 1 iMac, 1 TC), some of it Apple repaired as they should. But not all. It used to be different, I think they press their suppliers too hard.

Shankar R

I think the TC should have a ‘safe erase’ option like iPhone, controlled by the customer. But may be little more sophisticated.

Assuming its only an hardware issue, they should be able to figure it out in the QC, after product gets back.

If its a combo of software + (stored) file related + hardware, this safe erase option could anonymize the data and in turn erase a major portion of it and then the end-customer feels comfortable to hand over the hardware, even though they still loose data.

Tucker

Same experience for me. My TC croaked after 14 months. Called Apple and they said they’d replace it for free by sending a replacement and requiring I send the old one back. I too worried about my data, as it had 2 machines backed up on it, including financial/tax data. Got the new one the next day, and backed up both machines. After 3 days, it too died and I went through the whole process again. Feeling REALLY vulnerable here as they now have all my data on 2 TC’s. I’m sure this too will die in 12-18 months.

Todd

When my 1TB Time Capsule died (failed to power on, seems like the most common problem) I took it to the Genius Bar and they told me that if I could somehow access the drive inside to wipe the data and put everything back together without them knowing I’d taken it apart they’d give me a replacement (covered under the Apple Care on my MacBook). Thanks to Google and a heat gun I was able to pull out the 1TB drive, get my stuff off, wipe the drive and reassemble. I have the replacement Time Capsule, but I still feel like I’m living on borrowed time. If this one dies I’m going to take the drive out and hook it up to an Airport Extreme.

Noibs

If you want wireless backups, having an Airport Extreme and your **OWN** external USB drives would seem to be the best solutions. All of our data would remain under your control. If a drive, or an enclosure failed, you could easily replace either one.

Advait

In some international retail stores, repairs are done in-store, and Apple store employees have the tools to do so. Perhaps you could check if an Apple store nearby is willing to wipe the drive under your supervision? And perhaps that won’t void your warranty?

Davor

So you received new TC even with warranty expired? mine is still working, but its on month 13, so in few months could be dead. don’t have applecare on it :(

Liam Cassidy

Although I do have AppleCare it wasn’t necessary, since Apple admitted they are aware of a fault with some of the TC’s. As soon as they found that my unit was one of the “affected”, they offered a free replacement.

From what I gather the problem is not with the HDD itself but rather with the power capacitors int he device overheating and burning-out. This means my data is all there and plugging the drive directly into, say, a spare HDD bay on my Mac Pro would have been easy.

But Apple had other plans for me… ;-)

chrish

Mine blew its filesystem a couple of weeks ago, aged ~6 months. Since mine was a courtesy box after having 7 (count ’em!) MacBook Pro drives fail in approx. 6 months, I didn’t care too much about the warranty.

Popped it open, plugged the drive into an external case, and tried to fix it with Disk Utility and Drive Genius 2. Nope, the data partition was completely ruined somehow.

Reformatted the data partition and put it back in the Time Capsule. All appears to be well, but I’m definitely not keeping anything on there that isn’t backed up somewhere else.

It’s pretty wrong that I need to go out and buy an extra external drive to back up my “server-class” backup solution.

– chrish

Ictus75

Big magnet – put a guitar speaker magnet on it for a wile, that’ll fry any disc inside reducing all the data to chaos.

Kimon

While it is a small chance that anything would happen to your data your concern is certainly warranted. It’s the kind of thing you think is not a big deal until you actually get your identity stolen and who wants to know that they could have prevented that from happening and chose not to.

I remember when I was looking for a backup solution I considered a Time Capsule but all the reviews were really iffy. I opted for a Netgear ReadyNAS Duo and am glad I did. I can store my media on my local network to be shared between devices (laptop, desktop, Xbox), have configured my computer to use Time Machine to make backups to it (not hard at all), and I even have backups of my backups in case the drive fails(due to the NAS’s RAID setup). Best thing is you can buy and install your own hard drives so you can find more reliable and faster drives than those in the Time Capsule. Oh yeah and it comes with its own BitTorrent client so you don’t have to bog down your computer’s processor with downloading. Great device and no regrets at all.

No.to.Apple.Time.Capsule

you should just buy a new Apple Time Capsule if your data is really that important to you and if having an Apple Time Capsule is what you want.
or you should have bought a regular external harddrive and just use time machine, or Carbon Copy, or Super Duper. at least if it’s a non-Apple drive, then i can open it up myself to try to get at my data myself without worrying about some damn Apple warranty. and i could at least replace the drive myself and that’s easy to do. the Apple Time Capsule is too expensive as a ripoff both in terms of money and data.

Andrew

My time capsule also died after 18 months. Managed to take off the rubber bottom by using a hair dryer to warm the glue (as posted on other sites). Copied the data to another HDD and then wiped it the TC.

When I took it into Apple, they looked at the serial and then quickly offered me a replacement. My serial # started with “6F” just like all the other dead ones on http://timecapsuledead.org/.

Eileen

Andrew – how did you copy your data? I keep getting an alias no found kind of error – I got a docking station, it shows I have data on there, in the right amount of gb used that I recall, but can’t seem to be able to access it. can you help? I’m getting a free one tomorrow – FedEx says so – :)

Eileen

Got it all copied – copy and paste. All is good, new one arrived, I put the old one back together and it is on the way back to Apple. Thanks for this blog! Helped a lot.

Derek Martin

I have a time machine PLUS an excellent $5/mth backblaze.com complete automatic off-site backup. Cheaper than 1 HDD/yr. w00t!

Chris

Well, now, that’s just essentially asking folks to go through your personal files. And you’re paying them to do so…

Arne

I would just open it anyway, ideally with an independent witness or capture the whole process on video so you can prove that you did nothing wrong, just in case they try to blame you or charge for the replacement.

As I don’t own a TimeCapsule I have no idea if there is any tamper proof seal in or on it…

jonnyK

That is very bad advice. Opening the device clearly voids the warranty from a legal perspective. Having a video of you doing proves you violated the warranty and give apple sure proof they don’t need to refund your money. The strong magnet idea is much better.

Liam Cassidy

Hi Skeptic, thanks for commenting.

My Time Capsule serial number was 6F8111BDYZR.

I’m not sure how helpful that will be, since the replacement from Apple also begins with the same digits!

iBrain

You could always irradiate it with a powerful magnet to kill the data. And that doesn’t require opening the TC up…

Dave

You have the same problem with a computer. If the computer breaks, the hard drive contains all this personal information. I have always had great misgivings about giving all the information to unknown persons – trusted or not. And in fixing the computer, it may not be determined ahead of time what is needed to do the fix…hard drive?….motherboard? – all with unclear disposition of your personal data.

Mikey

I had the exact same thing happen. Mine happened to be under Applecare, so no worries. I did worry, however, about my data. I ended up surrendering it just like you will but it still bothered me.

I registered my 1 TB Time Capsule at http://timecapsuledead.org/

Not sure if it’s still around but it showed a definite pattern of about 17 months being a failure point.

Mikey

shrop

I have a TC and am just waiting for that day to come. I have had the same sort of issues with commercial backup and SAN solutions. Our fix has been to eat the cost if the data or regulations prohibit sending off the data. I would say the same personally. If your data is that important and you don’t trust Apple (which I understand not trusting anyone with your data), then the only real solution is to just buy a new TC. That stinks, but you know you have your data. I guess from Apple’s perspective, they can’t determine that you opening the case didn’t case an issue.

In any event, I understand your side. Thanks for sharing.

Benny

If you open it up and fiddle, it would make finding the problem difficult, and the results ubreliable. You could also just feel like a brand new TC, so just open yours up and fiddle, then shout that it had died of it’s own accord.

Just because they have you’re info doesn’t mean a sneaky man WILL steal your data. It’s just a small possibility. At the end of the day it’s just about making sure the failure testing is accurate and reliable

Skeptic

Great post, Liam. Any chance you could do us a favor and post the model number of your old TC, or give us some other way to compare ours against yours and see if we’re headed for the same headache? Thanks.

R. Kevin Hill

Hi Skeptic:

I did a scan of the “Time Capsule Memorial Register” with includes serial numbers, purchase and death dates, and it appears that the range for the 12-18 month lifespan from manufacturing defect are serial numbers 6F807xxxxxx through 6F852xxxxxx. There are failures for higher, more recent numbers, but they are far rarer, and fail far more quickly, in the ballpark of a 2-4 weeks, which suggests a different set of problems and during which you’d be under warranty or Applecare. You’re probably OK if you’re out of the above range. Hope that helps.

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