It took 6 months for me to get from 300 to 100 things. It took just 5 minutes for me to get from 100 to 0 things.
I just spent the last 9 months traveling and working in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Myanmar, Hong Kong and China from just my backpack. I worked on my startups and had an amazing time full of adventures.
Last week the political unrest in Bangkok became a little too rowdy for my tastes when grenades started being thrown around (more on that in another post). I stayed in Hong Kong for awhile but when that became too expensive I decided to fly back to the safe haven of my birth country, Holland, and wait the situation out. Since Thailand is my favorite place to stay, if that gets unstable, my options quickly run out. Luckily, my parents had a nice place in the east of the country where I could stay for awhile. It’s big, safe and in a pretty silent town with fast internet. So a good place to work and it’d be fun to see them again!
Returning from some of the most dirty, wild and dodgy (and fun) places all over Asia, I had never had a single thing stolen from me. Now stricken by irony, it took exactly 7 days to lose all my things in my parent’s home.
I woke up at 8AM to my mom screaming in shock that her $2k ring and other jewelry was gone. Thieves had broken into the door and had walked straight into the front room where literally all my stuff was and then proceeded to scavenge the rest of the house.
Instantly, I ran downstairs to see if my stuff was still in the front room where I had set up my office. As I’m a minimalist, I don’t have a lot of stuff. A MacBook Pro, an iPhone, some credit cards and clothes.
Except for my clothes and toothbrush, they’d taken everything. MacBook, iPhone, debit and credit cards and much, much more.
I was in shock and we all were. We called the police and tried to record all the places the burglars had been.
With my MacBook gone, it now meant the thieves had open access into my entire digital life. I now had to lock everything down immediately, from my personal and work mail to my YouTube accounts, my online businesses to my Linode servers and my Bitcoin wallet (with substantial funds in there). Since they had my iPhone too, they now also had potential access to my passwords manager as well as all my two-factor codes (on the Google Authenticator app). Even though my iPhone was secured by a passcode, everything is crackable these days.
In short, in just minutes, they could now destroy my entire personal life, destroy my online businesses and proceed with identity theft (taking out credit cards and borrow money) and maybe even bankrupt me. I’ve seen these things happen to other people before.
I scrambled as it had been a few hours since the break-in. There was one computer left in the house on which I immediately started changing all my passwords and resetting my two-factor authentication of all my online accounts. From Gmail to iCloud to YouTube, It literally took 12 hours to reset everything, and I still missed a few accounts.
While doing this, I actually thought this would make for a great start-up. Have an emergency number you can call which auto-locks all your accounts. Although then, you’d add an extra security risk with them having all your passwords. But it shouldn’t cost 12 hours to change all your accounts, like it did with me. There’s people with even more user accounts than me. And what about break-ins at businesses?
The next thing to hit me was that the burglar now had access to 512 GB of my files on my MacBook’s drive. As I said, everything I do is digital as I’m 100% paperless, and from my work itself, my work’s administration, bills, passport copies, my photos and videos, I had to come to terms that it was now potentially on the street. That made me paranoid. I figured, it’d more probable that the thieves would simply wipe the MacBook and put it on eBay. Lucky for me, I’m not important or famous. But does that really matter? Identity theft happens to common people and is a huge industry with lots of money to be made, especially if you have someone’s entire hard drive full of their administration, papers and even passport copies.
Our lives have become completely digital
The risk has become clear to me now. Since we store everything digitally now, it means when a burglar takes a laptop, they pretty much have someone’s life. A lot of us literally cannot have our devices being stolen. It’s a worse danger now than having our houses burglarized. Our houses just have stuff. Our devices have our entire life in digital form. That’s scary as fuck.
If someone takes your laptop, they have you by the balls (or ovaries).
From shock to fear
I went through the classic stages. First I was in shock of just losing everything I owned. Then in denial where I shrugged the whole burglary off with “it’s just stuff, it’s all replaceable” and literally felt great. The next day, that became anger at the thieves. I wanted to go outside, find them and beat them up. And then fear.
The fear hit me when I started thinking about the fact that the night of the break-in, before I went to bed, I had closed my bedroom door. When I woke up, my bedroom door was wide open. My parents nor me opened my door. It was the burglars who had been in my bedroom at 5am while I was asleep. Deep asleep and with ear plugs in I had no recollection of it. That in itself scared me shitless. I’m fine with a thief standing in my house when I’m awake, as I might be able to jump them. But not being able to know who’s there when I’m sleeping means I just lost any sense of safety when sleeping.
Luckily, that subsided after a week after we reinforced the entire house will steel bars, installed heavy locks in every door, and implemented a 24/7 alarm system with 6 cameras stationed around the house.
The ordeal of replacing everything
It takes weeks to replace all your stuff when it gets stolen, not to mention restoring all your backups and getting your system in the same state it was before it was stolen. All in all, the cost of work in getting your life back in order is a multiple of the actual materialistic cost you get back from insurance. It’s an ordeal.
So, what did I learn?
iCloud and Prey are pretty useless
I had Apple iCloud’s “Find My Device” and Prey enabled on both my iPhone and MacBook in case they were stolen, but to no avail. Thieves aren’t born yesterday. They know they shouldn’t connect to WiFi, thereby making it impossible for your device to alert iCloud or Prey of its location. Not a single report came in. They’re good services, but if the thieves are smart the odds you’re getting anything back are slim.
Enable file encryption
I didn’t really trust file encryption because I thought I might lose files because of it and therefore I never enabled Mac OSX’s built-in FileVault hard drive encryption. I should have though. It’d save me from worrying about who’s going through all my files now.
Store backups away from your device
My backup drive was literally NEXT to my MacBook. By sheer luck, I had just backed up my internal drive the day before and the thieves did not take it. They might have had some mercy after all? Thank the holy powers that may be.
I did have 4 copies of backups stored off-site around the country but they were all 9 months old (since I had just returned). In any case, I should’ve never ever left my ONLY backup drive next to my computer.
Use online backups
I didn’t have a cloud backup because I don’t trust a third party with my data. These days, the most popular web services get hacked and I think it’s just a matter of time before the first backup service leaks terabytes of customer’s files. Services like BackBlaze are great since they offer 265-bit AES client-side encryption. But then, there’s stories that the NSA might or might not have a backdoor in the encryption. The thing is, I might have to consider online backups soon, as an extra defense of not losing my files due to theft like this.
Keep stuff in eye-sight, wherever you are
For the last 9 months while I was traveling, I always had my stuff on my body (in my backpack) or in eye sight. I never got robbed and I learnt that getting robbed is a lot harder than we think. You can avoid dodgy areas and if you feel unsafe, you can simply leave. But when you haven’t got your stuff near you, there’s always opportunity for people to break-in and take it.
There had never been any break-ins in my parents house since they bought it 30 years ago, and I wrongly assumed there’d never be. So now, I can’t really assume any place is safe and always have to keep my valuables near me or locked up. Which is a fucking shame.
Today, I lost all the stuff I owned, but more importantly I lost a little faith in the world that I thought I’d somehow always be safe. On the other hand, I shouldn’t be a cry-baby about it. It took me over 27 years, or about 10,000 days, to get robbed. That’s still a 1 in 10,000 probability. Pretty good. So this was bound to happen at some point.
The irony doesn’t escape me that in all my years of traveling the world, I haven’t been robbed a single time. And when I come home, it took just 7 days to lose all my stuff.
At least I hit the holy grail of minimalism today. No stuff! Now guess what? Feels like shit!
Note: Let me know any tips you have for me in the thread on Hacker News and consider this an order to encrypt and backup your drives…today! :)
P.S. I'm on Twitter now with more of my adventures.