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

Simon HW

I found this thread after my TC died. I bounced over to the site mentioned: http://www.timecapsuledead.org – average life span is 19 months 20 days, the EXACT time mine lasted!

I have to say that despite losing my data, I was impressed to hear that Apple would replace it for free (although now I’ve found this site I can kinda see why). The data on my TC is password protected I think – I guess that won’t stop someone snooping around though if they wanted to, however, when prompted, the guy on the phone told me my Time Capsule would be “destroyed” when returned.

Lbs

This happened to me too after owning one for 18 months….everything gone and I was told I had to send it back to Apple and they’ll give me a new one. Doesn’t do me any good – whats the point in “backing up” when
you know it will die again.

Eileen

Everything actually isn’t gone. It’s the power supply that is dead but your info is still intact. This happened to me last week, I dissected it and got the hard drive out to get my info out then put it back together again and erased the drive before sending it to Apple in exchange for the new free replacement they sent out. If you can’t extract the info yourself, you can find a geek to do it for you. I used this link to get it opened and identify what I had to do. Forget the downgrade part, but you can see what you have to do and how to do it.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/24254876@N03/sets/72157604011791554/

Adam

I had been hearing about the fatal 18-month killswitch since purchasing my time capsule and I too knew the day would come. I didn’t expect the day to be New Years. At 3am the entire time capsule just shut down and in essence became a paper weight. After doing some research online, I came across a post on apples support pages saying if you have an AppleCare on your laptop it will cover your time capsule. I thought to myself, there was no way in hell that’s possilbe. So I called the local apple store and asked one of the employees. Turns out it does cover the time capsule. So I just took my first gen to the applestore, gave them my serial number of my laptop and they pulled up the applecare and within 15mins I had successfully switch from a first gen time capsule, to a brand new 2nd gen time capsule without having to pay anything. I also was told to call applecare and give them the new serial number and it would still be covered. I was shocked, but left super happy.

Eideard

Is there a problem with using one of the many software scrubbers to clean the HD? It’s what I’ve done when selling, giving away or trading in an old computer.

Shawn Craver

If the drive is functional, a good drive scrubber should be fine. Heck, if I remember right, DoD standard is only 7 random overwrites. The problem comes in when the drive fails, and short of a clean room environment, you can’t get at the data anymore.

Jens

Exactly the same thing happened to us, and we got more or less the same answers as well. I’ve switched to crashplan now. I will not trust the Time Capsule ever again.

Matt

I think the answer is pretty clear. Chances are, if you buy a TC, it’s going to die sometime before a year and a half and you’re unlikely to get your data back (I know there are exceptions, but that seems to be pretty much the rule).

So:
i). If that’s a problem, then get a local external drive, stick it on your router if your router has a USB port (some do and support external drives), or on an old machine running quietly out of the way somewhere but available on the network or just take the hit and plug it in every night or something. Use Time Machine cos it’s easy, or do a bit of research. CCC, SuperDuper, Chronosync are all good options. Oh, and back it up online too – Diino, Dropbox, Crashplan are all options.

ii). If it’s not a problem, get a TC, job done.

As we all know (or should do), for god’s sake, back up, back up, back up cos losing all your company’s financial history or the picture of your daughter the day she was born is really not funny.

Simon White

I use a Drobo hooked up to a Mac Mini Server. Time Machine works well in that configuration (unlike with a Droboshare) and any HDD failures are looked after by Drobo.

John

If you use filevault, your local home drive is encrypted, and the timemachine backups are encrypted copies of that encrypted file system. To restore or get the data back you need the user encryption key or password.
If you have anything really senstive, this is the safest way to sotre it. I myself use trucrypt, but that is only because I open that archive from multiple machines and OS’s, the only downside is that backups of that file are the whole archive, every time. For that reason it is excluded from my timemachine, and just copied with an rsync script at 11:00pm at night. I also backup my linux server that way to my timemachine disk. But due to the cost of a casule, and the fact I already had a full l wifi network setup before I got my mac, I just couldn’t justify the cost. I just use a firewire connected 1TB drive instead.

marlinduke

Would using FileVault solve this problem for the most part? TC croaks, but your home folder is encrypted anyway, so no worries?

Jazz1

Are you kidding me. They are most likely refurbishing them and then sending them out as replacements for failed ones. They just don’t want end users to damage a dead one so they can recycle it to owners of other dead ones.

I own two three Airport Extremes and one Express. They have given me great service. However the original Graphite had to be replaced by Apple. Of course there was no data to worry about.

Carl

So not exactly a TC, but my iMac had a hard drive failure. Was replaced at a an Apple store. And they indeed did give me back the old drive which I still have after I explained my concern. Sometimes it just depends on the customer service rep.

Simon

I thought I’d share my experience. Pretty much bang on 18 months my Time Capsule died. Usual symptoms, no power at all. Completely dead.

I rang support and they agreed to replace it out of warranty. I asked the first line guy whether I could take the disk out, and he said yes. Asked the second line guy and they said no. But I arranged to take it into the local store (Bristol, UK). I asked the genius there and he said it was fine to take the disk out. What’s more, he gave me advice on how to do it and even said that he’d done it for customers in the past who had the same problem. So I took the disk out, copied the data to a FireWire drive, got a new TC for free, copied the old TC sparseimage file onto the new TC and my Mac carried on backing up as if nothing had happened.

Apart from the initial contradiction, they couldn’t have dealt with it any better. The genius in the store even said that they expect people to do this because of the nature of the device.

Shawn Craver

I am so sick of people expecting “server grade” to mean it doesn’t fail, and if it does, I get to keep the hardware and get a replacement under warrantee. I worked for a DoD contractor for a while as a UNIX admin, and when our actual server grade hardware died, we still had to pay a premium on top of normal warrantee and support costs to hold onto any dead hardware that had sensitive data on it.

The Time Capsule is a great idea, but if you’re going to be backing up data that you don’t trust anyone else with, you have to buy whole new one should it die, even if it’s still under warrantee. That’s just the nature of warrantee replacements. This is exactly why I use an external drive, hooked up to an old G4 Mac mini as my Time Machine drive. That way, if some piece dies, I just replace it. And if that piece happens to be the drive itself, I can just destroy it, and eat the cost of a new one.

SD

So glad I didn’t bother with the TC and just stuck with an AEBS connected to an external HD via USB – the Time Machine experience is exactly the same as if I had a TC and I control my data!

Sky

As much as I like the Time Capsule form factor, I keep router and drives separate for this reason. In my case it’s Airport Extreme and a separate dual-bay enclosure with an over-engineered heat sink to keep drives running cool.

Jason

The same thing happened to me a couple of weeks ago. However, the solution to your problem is very simply. I made an appointment at my local apple store after I received the new TC. I took both in and the Apple Genius took the old dead TC and removed the hard drive. He then gave me my 500GB hard drive made the notes to the file and I mailed the old TC without 500 GB hard drive back to Apple. I was not charged anything. Not only did I get a new TC I got an extra 500 GB hard drive. Apple treated me very well and that is a big part of why I continue to do business with them.

Adam Jackson

Another great post on TAB. This is nothing new with Apple. I’m not surprised at all. This is why so many “hackers” use PCs. I’ve had so many techie server admins go bananas and want to play with my macbook when I’d go to client sites to do server work. They went gaga over it but most couldn’t deal with Apple’s control.

Example, the macbook air, mac mini and some early Powerbook / macbook models had hard drives that you couldn’t get to. Removing them would void the warranty. Yes it’s BS but that’s what you pay for. An experience and apple wants to hold your hand through all of it. You do understand that so little Mac users have those kind of skills. (TAB readers excluded)

brett

My TC died last month after 16 months. Apple replaced free (even though it was out of warranty and I had no applecare for it), but wouldn’t try to recover the data. They didn’t seem surprised; I bet they’ve seen this before.
Earlier, about 6 months after I got it, the TC stopped backing up, for some reason, and the genius had to wipe the hard drive to get it working againg. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but in both cases, the problems occurred within a day or after the TC did full restore, the first time after my MacBook hard drive died, the second after my MacBook was stolen and I used TC to restore the data on to my new one. I wonder if all the cranking required to do a full restore (which took several hours) fatally overheated it?
I’d heard about the overheating problems so I’ve kept the TC on one of those grill-like kitchen trivets that allows air to get under it and keeps it cooler, but I guess that didn’t help.
Anyway, I’m grateful TC saved my data twice, but the bottom line is, don’t count on it to store irreplaceable data. Keep a second backup. I have Dropbox now and that’s enough for my documents, at least. I guess in about June of next year, I should get ready for the same procedure.

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