This column is written by Dylan Evans, my lead forensic investigator and regular co-author of this column.
Everybody has something to stay sane during off hours. For me that is art. I spend most of my workdays staring at raw hexadecimal data while meticulously analyzing the contents of computers and cell phones. By the time I get home, the last thing I want to do is give my left hemisphere more attention. So I create instead. Some days I use an airbrush alongside traditional mixed-media, but most of the time I end up creating digital paintings on a computer.
And by “computer,” I don’t mean some shiny new Apple product, but a 6-year-old Lenovo ThinkPad with a built-in Wacom pen that I have extensively upgraded. I use the pressure-sensitive pen to draw directly on the screen. I use a custom hot-key pad I made from a cheap 10-key pad to control all my digital-brush settings. Most people would prefer a newer Surface-type tablet, but every little nuance of my old Lenovo is just perfect for me — the feel of the full-size keyboard, the pen sensitivity, the custom software tweaks. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.
This hobby has turned into both a major passion and a decent little side business. I’ve now had the honor of doing a few commissioned illustrations for book covers as well as a few local ads. I love it so much I’m building a portfolio for acceptance into a fine art master’s-degree program in my free time. Suffice it to say this stuff is very important to me, and all of those passionate feelings, my whole portfolio, and all my works in progress (including commissions) have been living in one place: my laptop.
You can see where this is going. I would have expected better from myself, considering that I wouldn’t dream of walking around with an unencrypted laptop without any sort of backup in my day job. But this was my art laptop. It couldn’t happen to me.
It happened to me. As I do every Sunday morning, I visited my favorite Nampa coffee shop, set my bag down to secure a table, and stood in line for coffee. Five minutes later, my bag was gone.
For five seconds, I went into full panic mode. The thousands of hours of work flashed before my eyes. My whole working portfolio vanished like a light going out. I thought of what fate might befall my 6-year-old brick laptop: a quick wipe-and-pawn for a few hundred bucks, or tossed right into the trash after the thief opened the bag and saw what “junk” he got?
I felt shocked, confused, frustrated, and more than a little violated. I have always said things can be replaced, but it suddenly dawned on me how this was more than just a stolen “thing.” It was a theft of my time, my energy, my goals and my dreams. You can’t find that stuff at Best Buy.
I took a deep breath. I knew I had to be proactive. This was not a small coffee shop; it spanned multiple rooms and multiple floors. As I called the police, I simultaneously got the attention of a manager and explained the situation. I asked to see his camera feed. In a few minutes I had a grainy visual of my thief, wearing bright red pants and a distinctive hairstyle. It was insulting: Obviously the guy didn’t put much faith into the concept of stealth.
While I waited for the police, I started looking for witnesses in the coffee shop and found just one: a guy about my own age who recognized the description of the thief and saw him run out the door in a certain direction. Together, we searched the area, but those red pants were nowhere in sight.
The police arrived. I gave a statement. Then I continued my search with my witness (who wishes to be called “Sherlock” in this article). We had split up, and after a while I was about to give up.
Filled with dejected rage, I started walking toward my car when Sherlock caught up to me. He told me that a friend of his was staying at the homeless shelter just two blocks away, and that as he thought about the distinctive description of the thief, he remembered his friend describing a similar person moving into the shelter just two weeks prior. That was also the direction the thief ran after leaving the coffee shop.
I updated the police and asked them to meet me there. Together we spoke with the shelter staff, which searched the individual’s room — and sure enough, there was my laptop bag, but no laptop and no thief.
Thankfully, this shelter collected the names of all their tenants, so we had a positive ID on the guy. It was simply a matter of waiting until he came back.
Dinner time arrived for the shelter residents. As he walked through the door, he was met by the police.
After a heart-wrenching day, I had my laptop back in my possession. He had uninstalled a few programs and deleted a handful of files but had not emptied the recycle bin. Somehow, by some small miracle, I had my laptop and all my data back without a scratch in under 12 hours.
I later learned that Sherlock is also homeless. I am in his debt and am brainstorming things I can do to show my appreciation. The data he recovered was worth more to me than any possession I have, and without his help I never would have gotten it back.
And tonight, I’m celebrating by setting up redundant cloud backups.
Neal Custer is president of Reveal Digital Forensics & Security, a subsidiary of Custer Agency Inc., and an adjunct professor at Boise State University. firstname.lastname@example.org. Dylan Evans is Reveal’s vice president of operations. This column appears in the December 21, 2016-January 17, 2017, edition of the Idaho Statesman’s Business Insider magazine. Click here for the Statesman’s e-edition, which includes Business Insider (subscription required).