Last Updated on November 9, 2018 by Dave Farquhar
At least it looked like a clean break.
I commonly run errands mid-evening because strapping my two kids into seat belts is a good way to keep them from tripping over their own shadows and hurting themselves. So we did that one night, and when we got home, my wife logged onto Facebook, where a picture of my sister’s USB flash drive greeted her. It was in pieces.
“Have her call me,” I said.
From what I could tell from the picture, the USB connector had snapped off, but it looked like it snapped off very cleanly. The data probably would be recoverable.
My phone rang shortly afterward. It was my sister. Her laptop had been sitting on a couch or a footstool and it fell. It only fell a few feet and onto carpet, but it landed on the USB flash drive. The connector snapped right off. She asked if it could be fixed.
I said the prognosis was good. Worst case, I could send it to Ontrack, who is so good at data recovery that the government is scared of them. Best case, I could fix it long enough to get the data back. I do know how to solder. Middle case, I could call in a favor. I have a friend and mentor who’s much better at soldering than me and who has lots of fancy equipment for soldering on sensitive circuit boards. Bottom line: This was a problem, but a problem I could solve at least three different ways.
But first I suggested she take it to her local computer repair shop and see what they had to say. If they were a shop that had a real technician who knows how to solder and stuff, they could probably fix it for her in less time than it would take to mail the drive to me. If all they had were board-swappers, hopefully they’d admit it and hand the drive back to her. Maybe they’d be able to recommend someone local who could do the job.
So she tried that first. And it didn’t go well. The shop owner turned pale when he saw it, and said maybe his assistant could help. He’d be there in the morning. So she came back the next morning.
“Data recovery is a very tedious and difficult process. It’s going to cost $250,” he said.
My last publication in a computer magazine was an article about data recovery, so I know a little bit about the subject. Sometimes data recovery is really hard. Sometimes it’s easy. And data recovery very rarely costs $250. A really easy job generally costs more like $100, and a reasonable estimate for a hard job is more along the lines of $1,000.
That’s what I told my sister when she called me with the news. So she sent me the drive, USPS First Class.
I also told her I figure the kid probably makes $7 an hour, so to him, $250 is a lot of money. So he pulled the $250 figure out, hoping it would scare her off so he wouldn’t have to admit he was over his head on this job.
The problem with his logic is that I know people who can make $250 in a couple of hours. Faced with her situation, they’d slam two Uncle Benjamins and an Uncle Ulysses down on the counter and say, “Do it. Do it now.”
But I digress. The drive arrived in the mail Monday night. I took it out of the package and examined it. It was a very clean break. The solder joints failed, and it looked like the board and the USB connector both escaped damage completely. One of the grounding pins took a severe hit, but the other looked OK. I tried dry-fitting the connector back onto the board, and it fit on very cleanly, like it had always been there. That gave me an idea.
I’ve fixed hard drives in non-conventional ways before to get data back. My favorite trick is to heat it up with a hair dryer. Frequently, heating a drive up to its normal operating temperature will free up the lubricants enough to bring a stuck drive to life. My least favorite trick is to put it in a freezer overnight. That will often do wonders for the drive, but it also shortens its life expectancy to approximately 30 minutes after you take it out. I’m not sure I’ve ever used nail polish on a hard drive, but I’ve used it to repair stripped threads. I figured mentioning nail polish might make you more likely to read this far.
The drive fit back together so well, I figured I could hold it together with a clothespin long enough to get the data back. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a clothespin. So I stopped on my way home to pick up a package at the dollar store the next night.
After the kids went to sleep–I wasn’t going to risk them interrupting the recovery process–I placed a clothespin on one end of the board to give myself a nice, convenient, non-conductive handle to hold. Then I fit the severed USB connector into place. I double-checked the electrical connections to make sure they were making good contact, then clothespinned the connector into place. Grasping the drive by that clothespin to make sure the connector wouldn’t budge, I plugged the connector gently into a USB extension cable that was already plugged into my computer.
“Installing device driver files,” my computer responded. Then up popped a dialog box asking what I wanted to do with this USB removable drive.
I jumped up and down and pumped my fist like Jonathan Pappelbon closing out the 9th inning of a clinching World Series game.
Then I copied the data over to my computer’s SSD just as quickly as I could. Windows counted 152 MB of data, so it didn’t take long at all.
I’ll see your tedious process and raise you two clothespins.
Once the data was copied over, I ejected the drive and plugged in a brand-new 4 GB drive to receive the data. It’s safer to copy to an intermediate drive than to use another USB drive as a direct destination. Not knowing how long my clothespinned connection would maintain good electrical contact, I wanted the copy to happen just as quickly as possible, and a SATA-connected SSD will run rings around any USB 2.0 drive. Plus, using an intermediate drive gives me an automatic backup copy. Anyone who’s read this far and understood already knows the value of backup copies.
So her data is on its way back to her. All it took was a about five minutes, two clothespins, enough knowledge of USB to know that it just might work, and enough guts to try it.
I was glad. I know how to solder, but don’t exactly enjoy soldering tiny joints on circuit boards. And besides, after I thought of the idea, I really wanted to be able to walk into the office this morning and announce that last night I fixed a USB flash drive with two clothespins.
Stuff like that keeps my five bosses on their toes.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.
7 thoughts on “I need a hair dryer, some nail polish, and two clothespins”
So how much did you charge your sister? Did she include chocolate chip cookies in the package as a down-payment?
Yeah, that’s got to be worth more than some brownie points with your wife. Not that that’s a bad thing, husbands need all the brownie points they can get!
Bailing wire? Check!
Duct tape? Check!
Clothes Pins? On the list!
Loved the MacGyver-ness of the title (and the solution come to think of it).
Amazing. Awesome. ASTOUNDING!
What a story too… a GREAT TALE!
CONGRATULATIONZ, love it. What a HACKER.
It won’t come as a surprise that MacGyver was one of his favorite shows! And I’ll see to it that he gets his chocolate chip cookies.
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