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Q&A: MacFixIt Answers

How to protect your user data during computer repairs, and other questions answered.

MacFixIt Answers is a feature in which we answer questions e-mailed in by our readers.

This week readers wrote in with concerns about password and data security when sending computers in for repair, Boot Camp installations not loading after running disk verification and repair routines, and the feasibility of putting third-party utilities on the OS X Lion recovery HD partition. We welcome alternative approaches and views from readers, so if you have any suggestions or alternative approaches to these problems, post them in the comments!

Question: Password and data security during computer repairs
MacFixIt reader Jerry asks:

I have from time to time found it necessary to leave my computer at the repair facility. I'm concerned about things like password control (1Password), Dropbox, Contacts (AddressBook), and other information I don't wish to share with the repairman's eyes. Is there a way to temporarily protect such items from the service person's view without removing it completely from my computer? What is the best way of handling this problem?

Most password security measures such as your keychain or 1Password require a main password to access. Without this then all passwords contained by these technologies will be locked down and inaccessible. If you need to take the system in for repair and a tech needs admin access, then it's best to create a new admin account for the tech to use. Never give the tech your password.

Even if the tech is able to change your user password and access your files, there should be no way for the person to retrieve your secure passwords.

As for your personal information, if it is on the hard drive and the hard drive is unencrypted, then the tech will have access to it in one way or another. If you do not wish the tech to have this access, then your only option is to remove the hard drive from your system when you send it in for repair. You can replace it with an alternative drive, or let the tech know that you have done this and they might be able to work around it (though it's justifiable that they might claim they cannot repair the system without the drive).

While you can clone the drive or use Time Machine to back it up and then format it before sending the system in, this might be more of a burden than it's worth, especially since you can swap the drive out with a spare one.

Question: Boot Camp not working after disk repair
MacFixIt reader Nick asks:

I have a mid-2009 MBP (3.06GHz, Intel Core 2 Duo, 8 GB ram, etc.) and have had a "funny" problem of losing access to my Windows 7 partition (Boot Camp partition) after running a disk utility maintenance while in OS X Lion in the following manner under Disk Utility: Verify Disk, Repair Disk Permission, Erase Free Space. After performing the aforementioned functions, rebooting in the Windows 7 "space" comes up with a message of "cannot find [the] operating system," or some reasonable facsimile thereof.

I've also had problems with maintaining the OS X partition due to errors that crop up on occasion while running the utility "verify disk." The only remedy in this case is to restore the entire HDD from a backup HDD, which I utilize religiously!

If Disk Utility's "Verify Disk" procedure is constantly bringing up error messages and requires fixing, then it is likely your hard drive is bad and is progressively acquiring errors before it dies. This is likely the reason the boot camp partition is no longer available. I would recommend you back up your data as soon as possible, and then replace the drive. While it could simply be a formatting or partition table setup issue, often the problem is deeper than that and replacing the drive is assurance that the system will work properly.

Question: Putting third-party utilities on the Recovery HD partition in Lion
MacFixIt reader Tyler asks:

Would it be OK to put a couple of third-party utilities -- say Drive Genius or Disk Warrior -- on the recovery HD in Lion? I can make visible but am not sure if it is read only or would mess up anything.

The Recovery HD does not contain all the libraries and resources needed to run many programs. While you can install some programs on it and they may work, others will not have such success. You also chance the programs not being stable. Therefore, instead of using the Recovery HD partition, you will likely have more success installing a full OS X installation to a secondary drive and then loading that with the programs you need.

To edit the Recovery HD partition, you would have to mount the partition, and then access the "BaseSystem" disk image on it, mount the image, and then modify the contents. Doing this on the limited space of the recovery HD might prove to be a bit difficult.

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