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

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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.

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