December 10, 2003
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For about $1,000,DriveSavers will resurrect your data

DriveSavers engineer John Christopher displays an ex-patient at the Comdex computer show in Las Vegas. The company counts Keith Richards among its fans. (Bob Mims/The Salt Lake Tribune)

By Bob Mims
The Salt Lake Tribune

    LAS VEGAS -- Personal computers have become the 21st century's family lockbox, a digital treasure chest holding everything from diaries and photos to sensitive financial and medical information.
    Sophisticated antivirus and firewall software keeps that data safe from malevolent code and curious hackers. But it is life's decidedly low-tech catastrophes -- a cup of coffee spilled on a laptop here, fire or flood there, an accidental formatting of a hard drive, even a careless nudge that topples a PC case -- that can render even the most tech-savvy catatonic.
    No one is immune, says John Christopher, an engineer with DriveSavers. The Novato, Calif., company has been taking on seemingly impossible data recovery challenges since 1985, and has earned the gratitude of more than a few household names in the process.
    Start with none other than Agent 007, James Bond. Or, at least his most popular incarnation, actor Sean Connery.
    "He had a laptop while working with Catherine Zeta-Jones on the film 'Entrapment.' All his script notes and other production information were on the hard drive," Christopher recalled. "The drive just gave up the ghost; he couldn't access anything."
    A signed, smiling portrait of Connery, displayed at the recent Comdex computer trade show along with other celebrities rescued by DriveSavers, bears testimony to the company's 100 percent recovery of the Scottish actor's data.
    Virtuoso rock guitarist Keith
   Richards of the Rolling Stones lost all his correspondence and notes while planning the band's 1998 stretch of the "Bridges to Babylon Tour."
    "Everyone wants to know what he spilled on his laptop," Christopher said with a nod to Richards' notorious reputation for hard living. "In reality, he just dropped it."
    DriveSavers engineers, working in a cleanroom wearing white surgical gowns and masks, removed and disassembled Richards' hard drive. What components could be salvaged were painstakingly cleaned, while other parts were replaced from the company's stock of more than 10,000 hard drive models.
    Richards' data was successfully recovered. Today, DriveSavers' "Hall of Fame" includes the rock star's simple "DriveSavers, Thanks," scrawled across an open-shirted photo of Richards taking a drag on a cigarette.
    There are many others, but Christopher's favorite is a cartoon crafted to thank DriveSavers for saving 12 episodes of "The Simpsons," Fox's animated comedy hit.
    The panel has Lisa praising the company for recovering 100 percent of the data "when dad spilled beer in his hard drive." Homer, the numbskull patriarch of the cartoon family, answers: "Yeah, but they only recovered 60 percent of the beer. "
    Christopher, who worked on that project, says it involved retrieving scripts including the then-top secret "Who Shot Mr. Burns" 1995-96 cliffhanger finale.
    Bill Oakley, an executive producer and writer for the show, thought chances for retrieving the documents were as cooked as his PC was during a power outage.
    "The Monty Burns cliffhanger was a big secret, the subject of a huge contest," he recalls. "We were in the middle of the script, working on my Macintosh SE . . . where all the writing was stored."
    Oakley admits he had not backed up the scripts. An overnight power outage left his PC dead. A week at a local computer store failed to resurrect the machine. Desperate, Oakley called DriveSavers, remembering a magazine advertisement.
    "A dozen scripts on his drive and those were the only copies," Christopher said. "I like to think that if we had not been able to rescue that drive, they may not have done such a good job wrapping up that finale."
    At an average cost of $1,000, going to DriveSavers is an expensive option for desperate, rank-and-file PC owners who may first opt for commercial data-recovery software or local computer shops.
    Oakley allows many are helped by those choices. Still, a good number of DriveSavers' customers come to the company as a last resort, shipping their computers to Novato when other efforts and experts have failed.
    Many of DriveSavers' 25 daily clients are either wealthy, institutional or corporate -- such as Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, ABC News, Boeing, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Warner Brothers, Harvard and Yale, and the Smithsonian.
    With a 90 percent success rate recovering files from computers that have been dropped, fried by power surges, burned, run over -- and even retrieved from the bottom of the Amazon River -- DriveSavers also gets calls from frantic government officials.
    Christopher cannot reveal specific agency names or cases, but points generally toward federal law enforcement and national security functions. "The idea usually is for us to get drives functioning long enough for investigators to pull data off them," he said.
    "Bad guys often try to destroy their data. One guy took three hard drives and threw them into a lake. That's where they were for over two weeks," Christopher said.
    Through meticulous disassembly, cleaning and repair, it took five DriveSavers engineers nearly a week to give prosecutors their evidence back intact.

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