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CBC vs. Apple: What they're not telling you about data recovery

Apple is misleading customers about data recovery. They're lying! They ban accounts. It really pisses people off! That's the focus and fallout from a CBC report about a couple from Newfoundland who were trying to save their vacation photos from a water damaged iPhone.

I've been asked about the report over and over again since it aired and it's taken me a little while to sort through it all. And that's only because the report itself is so… unsorted — it's an incredibly important story but it's told incredibly badly.

Now, I've had many great experiences with the CBC. I spend an hour on the local affiliate every few months answering every tech support question the audience can throw at me, and I've generally found their producers and hosts to be both keenly interested in the facts and fluent in the technology.

But, I've also found that to not to be the case at all with these "gotcha" type reports that seem happy, even eager, to sacrifice the facts for the far more clickbaity Apple is evil and let us ignore everything else to selectively tell you why narrative… It feels like it came in with an agenda and that agenda wasn't to fully inform viewers about everything that makes this story so important, and to me that's a real missed opportunity. So, I want to take that opportunity and use it really inform everyone about everything that's going on here.

Rather watch than read? Hit play on the video above!

Data Loss

Josephine and Dave Billard went on a five-month vacation from Greece, through Europe, ending in Norway. They posted a few of their thousands of photos to Facebook, but otherwise never got around to backing them up. Then, while going for a canoe ride in a nearby pond, tragedy struck — the iPhone ended up going into the water.

This, right at the beginning, is where alarm bells start ringing. Obvious questions are either not asked or the answers aren't provided.

Did the Billards have iCloud Photo Library turned on, or iCloud backup, either of the services Apple provides so that people never have to worry about getting around backing up? Did they ever sync with iTunes, either regularly, occasionally, or even once? Something else that would have generated a backup of the photos.

We can assume not, but good reporting isn't about leaving the viewer to make those kinds of assumptions. It's about providing facts and proffering a complete story.

I'm not saying Apple deserves extra credit for providing these features, or that it's a greater tragedy if they weren't known about or used or somehow weren't available. Maybe people need to better educated about them, including by this very report? Cautionary tales are, after all, meant to be cautionary, and the CBC has considerable that can be used to inform and empower their audience.

As is, it's a huge opportunity squandered, and it certainly wasn't for lack of airtime, not when so many long seconds are spent drawing out the re-telling how exactly the canoe flipped over…

After retrieving their iPhone, and understandably desperate to recover their photos, the Billards contacted Apple and we're told Apple wouldn't help. More interested in selling them a new phone than recovering their data.

But we're not told what contacting Apple means in this context. There aren't any Apple Stores in Newfoundland, so did they call AppleCare? Go online at Apple.com? Something else entirely?

I'm not for one moment going to defend Apple for not having an amazingly good response to a customer who needs data recovery — more on that in another hot take minute — but context and details are still important here. Some Apple Genius and support staff have contacted me and informed they routine tell customers about third party data recovery options and that it happens frequently enough it's odd CBC didn't encounter it for this story.

Data recovered

The couple then visited several local repair shops but none were able to help them. Why? Again, no details are provided. If their answers matched… whomever the Billards spoke with at Apple, or what the reporter gets from… whomever they spoke with at Apple later, then that's important context to include, if only to weigh the consistency and conventional wisdom of the answer.

Finally, one of the local shops suggested iPad Rehab, a legendary repair place just outside of Rochester New York.

Now, I'm old school. When I worked briefly in IT and always with my own systems, whenever I had a laptop or drive go bad, I never turned to the vendor. I turned to Alta Vista — I said old school! — and later Google. Even a few years ago when an external drive with a bunch of video interviews was damaged, I Googled and tried a couple of pieces of recovery software and weighed the costs of a recovery service.

I think nerds have just always taken responsibility for their own data backup and recovery.

But Apple hasn't been about the nerds for years. Since at least the age of iPhone, Apple has been about the mainstream, and shiny sealed objects that they'll take care of so you don't ever have to. So, I think it's absolutely legitimate that, in case of emergency, people would go to and expect data recovery from Apple, and if Apple wants to take on complete control of the experience, they also have to take on complete responsibility for handling everything that comes with it, quickly and easily. Again, I'll get back to that in a hot take minute.

The report shifts to Jessa Jones, who runs iPad Rehab. She's beyond amazing, and it's great to see her getting the attention she deserves. Even if the report also shifts into more of a profile piece to do it.

Jones – I want to say of course, but you can never take data recovery for granted – is able to retrieve the photos. We get to eavesdrop as she gives the Dillards the good news over FaceTime, showing them their phone, swiping through their photos. All their photos.

Data Protection?

And, as I'm watching that, for the first time, I actually do get just a little bit scared. Because the goal of reports like this should be to educate, and data recovery is a subject that really needs a lot more context than what's given.

iPhone under water

iPhone under water (Image credit: Rene Ritchie / iMore)

Lucky for the Dillards that it's someone with the reputation and ethics of Jones. We're never told if there's anything of an intensely private medical, financial, or personal nature on the phone, and no one watching is ever even informed that that's something that really needs to be considered before handing a device over for data recovery to anyone, including major companies, let alone smaller repair shops.

Read Mike Wuerthele's look into how this is really handled by Apple support at AppleInsider

I said this in my backup video, and it's why I advise people not to encrypt backup drives on their PCs — for many people losing access to their data is a far more likely and far worse situation than having someone steal it. These were vacation pictures, irreplaceable yes. But imagine wedding pictures. Baby pictures. Pictures of loved ones who have passed away. Nothing is more valuable or important.

But a phone isn't an external backup. A phone is increasingly our lives and livelihoods. That kinds of data should absolutely be encrypted and considered incredibly carefully before any access is granted to anyone, including for data recovery.

There could be privileged information on there, information that's covered by HIPPA or similar regulations, company security keys and access codes, never mind all sorts of deeply personal information, messages, and pictures.

And there have been stories about people at the largest retailers and the smallest shops copying off exactly that kinds of deeply personal information when devices are in for repair or recovery.

That's why, before I begin any conversation with anyone about any kind of data recovery, I first have the critical conversation about privacy, so that they can make as informed a decision as possible. A hard drive that only has family photo backups, do anything you want with it. I mean, make sure you send it with a courier you trust so it doesn't get stolen en-route, but knock yourself out. A phone that has clients, sources, and/or sexts on it? Think really, really hard, and if you decide to proceed, make sure whatever software or service you use is 100% guaranteed not to look at or copy any of the data they're handing back to you.

No such warnings or caveats are supplied in this report, which feels a lot like journalist malpractice at this point. Because you just know "Apple Genius-recommended data recovery service copied customer nudie pics" is a headline the same team would run without so much as a blink.

Data Drama

The Billards sorted, the report then shifts hard into the issue of data recovery in general and Apple, be it AppleCare or whomever they actually spoke with at Apple, saying it wasn't possible in specific. What about all those repair shops that said the same thing in the beginning? Who knows. We've forgotten about those. And, in all fairness, no local repair shop should ever be held to the same standard as a vendor anyway.

Apple Watch under water

Apple Watch under water (Image credit: iMore)

The whole thing then detours into drama surrounding the Apple Support Communities, which are discussion forums hosted by Apple, with some involvement by Apple staff, but mostly just users asking and answering questions to and from other users.

A lot of it involves Jones getting banned from the forums repeatedly for recommending either her or any third party data recovery service. Again, it's unclear from the report, but again I assume based on her reputation she's doing everything right, and banning her is all shades of BS, especially given the disclaimers in the terms of service. I mean, unless Apple is absolutely paranoid about the privacy implications of data recovery I outlined above, which given their stance on privacy, they may well be, it seems like the perfect middle ground between recommending these types of services directly, which likely carries with it all sorts of legal implications, and just pretending they don't exist for anyone or for anything. Which helps precisely nobody.

Then there's this whole weird thing about the reporter being told there's nothing he can do to recover data from his phone, and I can't tell if we're supposed to think it's Apple telling him this, but it's clearly username KiltedTim in the dramatically sound-effected screen shots, even though that's not called out, and I'm left to wonder who KiltedTim and why the reporter is posing as JoLo82, and nothing is made clear or makes sense any more. And, while it's by no means a solution, I just want to recommend to everyone that they check out the iMore, MacRumors, and /r/apple, where there may be some rules against advertorials but there absolutely aren't any Apple corporate concerns.

Apple online chat support, which isn't so conflatable with forum users, gave the same answer about data recovery not being possible. Which is a shame. Because, given Apple's stance or privacy and how sensitive data on an iPhone can be, it feels to me like Apple is perfectly positioned to provide exactly that type of service — data recovery you can 100% trust not to compromise the privacy of your data in any way.

Bring a damaged device in or send it in, it goes to a regional hub, where everything is done according to incredibly strict protocols, and then you get the data back on a USB-A drive with USB-C adapter on it, because connectors are still a mess.

That fits Apple's increasingly services-centric business model, their stance on privacy, and fulfills the obligation they've taken due to the control they've simply taken.

And if people don't want to trust Apple or want to Google for potentially less expensive alternatives once they know recovery is a possibility, and as grown ass adults make their own grown assed decisions about who they do trust, so much the better.

Apple declined to comment on quote-unquote why they provided false information. Which is disappointing, but also pretty much textbook phrasing you use when you want to make sure you don't get a comment and can loudly proclaim as much in your piece.

To be continued...

So, end of the day, I find this whole thing to be, like I said in the beginning, a huge opportunity squandered.

If done right and, yeah, I'll say it, more responsibly, this piece could have been used to educate viewers about backup options like iCloud Photo Library, iCloud Backup, and iTunes Backup. To inform them about alternatives like Jones' service but also make sure they understood the benefits and risks involved in handing any personal device over to any other party. And to show Apple the kinds of issues some people still face when all else fails and urge them to consider ways in which they can help better serve those customers.

I get how making a cartoon corporate caricature of a mustache-twirling Mountie villain, and even selectively crafting a narrative around that, makes for a far more sensational story, but it also makes one that's much, much easier for anyone, including Apple to dismiss as a hatchet job.

And yeah, you get clicks and re-uploads and rants and whatever, but you also become noise, maybe even part of the story. And that's never the point of doing the story.

So, turn on iCloud Photo Library, turn on iCloud backup, make an iTunes backup if you're old-school, backup your photo library locally and to Dropbox, Backblaze, or any other cloud, and decide what data you never want to lose and what data you never want exposed.

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Rene Ritchie
Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

36 Comments
  • Yep, turn on iCloud Backup and once your 5GB is gone, then what?
  • Buy more storage from Apple, Dropbox, OneDrive or whoever.
  • iCloud should really come with more free storage, though, or another alternative is to do what Google has done, and allow unlimited storage just for photos. The majority of people I know with an iPhone have their iCloud backup fill up very quickly, it's one part of Apple which really does not "just work"
  • It works. You just want it for free. If you're looking for free try Google's photo solution; however, it's not necessarily free as Google TOS states they own the photos and they can review your personal photos. So you loose privacy. Nothing in life is free.
  • It doesn't work because 5GB is a paltry amount in this day and age. OneDrive gives you 15GB, Mega gives you 50GB, pCloud gives you 10GB. If we can't have unlimited photos, then at least give a reasonable amount of space.
  • If you are going to pay, go with microsoft. At least you get alot more for your money. My account gives me 1 tb, my wife her own 1tb, and my 2 sons their own 1 tb each. Plus, we all get office 365 included. I pay 118.00 a year for all of that. I would have to pay more for less from apple. all of microsoft's apps work great on my iphone too.
  • Buying 2TB iCloud is the best decision with regards to my apple products I have ever made.
  • I agree, it is fairly cheap.
  • I really can't stand it when people cry over needing to spend 99 cents a month vs losing data (contacts, memories (pictures) etc)
    Those same people don't think twice about spending $9 on a Latte, but heaven forbid someone be expected to either spend 99 cents, or be required to manually manage that data themselves.
    if your memories (pics) and contacts etc are not worth $11 a Year, then YOU take care of that data yourself.
  • I agree. My comments might come across as if I'm one of these people, but in reality the only thing I'm arguing is the fact that Apple gives the lowest amount of free storage space compared to the competition, and that's most likely because they're trying to get as many people to run into the limit and click the "pay for more storage" option, without thinking about other cloud storage options. It's a bit of shady business practice, although the price isn't much and I can't argue about that
  • Much ado about nothing. Apple can’t prevent nor fix stupid.
  • Too bad you and all apple apologists and loyalists miss the entire point about the apple story. They (apple), state they cannot recover data, when they certainly can, then when people who successfully recover said data, calls out apple for outright lying, apple tries to silence them.
  • You're statement is an argument of the word "can". I cannot fly because I'm not physically able. I cannot drink, not because I'm physically able, but because I have chosen not to drink alcohol and there are no exceptions. So yes, they are physically able to recover the data, but it's against their policy and thus they cannot.
  • They can, they don’t want to. Period.
  • Like I said, they physically can, but it's against policy, so they cannot. That is a common use of the English language. It's called being consistent. Once you make a decision not to do something, you can't do it. Unless you are spineless and wishy-washy.
  • And who created that policy? Was it Apple themselves? If so, why? Because they don’t want to perhaps? Using “it’s against policy” is an argument in itself as well.
  • No. They can but, “will not”.
    Stop your semantics.
  • Personal responsibility. You drop your phone in a lake and it's Apple's fault. Please.
  • Apple still has a responsibility in front of their investors to keep their customers. Going a bit beyond what the others do for their customers is what Apple does, that's a part of why I am one of their customers.
    Though I am a fairly informed one I know many people who think, for example, things get backed up automatically. Actually, why is it not like this in this day and age? I am thinking that iCloud back up should be the default option, that the phone should remind you when you have more than a certain quantity of data not backed up, that when your iCloud back up gets full you should have a huge message on your iPhone requiring your iTunes password to chose the DO NOT BACK UP to iCloud option so it's clear for the user he is now on his own.
  • Not being informed is not the same as being stupid. If Apple want to keep their customers they have to inform them better; they usually do.
  • I have a split feelings here... I agree with Rene on leveraging iCloud so not only if a mishap happens, theft of the device could also have happened. For small travels this makes a lot of sense! Now this is were I disagree ... When one is traveling overseas cellular connections can be difficult! Not happening in the Amazon rain forest! Or be very costly, or you might not have a phone that can't even access the local cell network (radio or SIM). Then you have no direct means to connect to the iCloud server. While hotels and B&B's often offer WiFi connections you often need to pay for them and they maybe painfully slow! I've traveled quite a lot and I do use iCloud, but I don't depend on it! I always have a portable backup drive with me so I can quickly backup my photo's for the day. I fault Apple here a bit, because they don't offer any guidance for travelers outlining good practices. They also don't outline what iPhones radio's work in the different countries as well links to carriers to get a local SIM. Think of it this way I go to my local AAA office and they can give me guides and useful info for a given country and many of the car makers now offer this as well. Apple needs to offer this level of the basics. OK, so we get to the grist of the subject data recovery ...
    I fault Apple for not setting standards as they need to be established as you are right Rene, there is a lot of personal information stored on ones phone. I would expect Apple listing unsecured data recovery services {this is the data you create photo's, email & messages}. It is only when a logic board can be patched back into a working device (which is what Jessa does). These companies need to be bonded and be audited and supported by Apple. And lastly, it does not involve breaking into a locked phone! This is were Apple needs to come to grips they can't be all things!
  • This is why I want flash drive compatibility on my iOS devices. Sure you can compare them to floppy disk all you want Rene, but it still doesn’t make them inconvenient in some instances such as this one. And I’m sorry but the cloud is just not reliable period. So many issues I’ve had with the cloud that I’ve only resorted to using them as movie storage.
  • I use cloud storage as a backup mainly, so I'll have the information locally and in the cloud. If the cloud goes down, I have the information local. If my computer goes down, I have the cloud
  • I only pay like $1.29 Canadian a month for 50Gb of iCloud storage. You think people could afford that if they can afford to buy a iPhone. Those people didn't even think to connect their phone to a computer when they got back home, then dropped the phone in a lake. So now they blame apple? Seems like they had enough chances to use their head but seems like they lost their mind. I agree with Rene about CBC also and how they could of made the story about backing up and ways to do it instead of twisting it into some viral dream to get more hits on youtube. I use apple products but I'm not exactly a apple fan. They upset me plenty most of the time but I still do my own thing to be safe and not lose data. My backups are often 3 or 4 deep and even decades ago when hard drives would die on me and I lost photos, I had no one to blame but myself for being careless and not having a backup.
  • Many of the people who are loosing their stuff are not as tech savvy as you or me. Thats where I think Apple had failed them! Often when I go to an Apple Store I see the sales person reviewing the phones features and as a passing note at the end they go into sell mode on iCloud. Never explaining why its important! And if they are going into the Amazon rainforest not warning them to get a portable drive to backup as iCloud is just not available.
  • I still don't see how its apple's fault. Maybe people just don't remember how life used to be. I've been taking photos since the 70s. If someone is going to use a phone as their camera on a once in a lifetime trip, maybe they should think twice. There's always been a risk of losing photos. Even many of mine would be damaged by the x-rays at airports back when I used film. I used to take photos for a lot of people at a lot of events or things that just took place once and photos were lost over the years due to many things but always my error. I don't see how I would go blaming the company that made my camera or film. I don't think its up to apple to be babysitting how people use their products. They offer apple care and iCloud but to be taking in anyones phone that ended up in a lake or the toilet and lost their photos, that's just life or careless to me. This of any other device we use these days. Maybe I'm just old. Its technology and bad things happen all the time. If people are going to use the tech they need to be aware of the dangers. Its up to them. I don't mean to sound angry. I'm not a apple fan boy either. I just think its kind of silly to blame apple. To me its just tech. In the early 2000s I lost so many digital photos on my computer like I said previously. At some points 10 month periods where I lost every digital photo I took. Hard drives died. I had no backup. Its because of these mistakes I am more careful now. Sometimes it takes a disaster to learn this. I still don't think its up to apple any more than the companies that made my dying hard drives. Anything digital can just go poof at any time. Even old film negatives or photos are more physical but can get wet or lost in fire. If we care about something, its only up to us to have a backup of some sort. Apple annoys me for many other reasons but for points like this I think people just need to be more aware. Seems like so much is a disposable society these days. Drop a phone, get another. Sorry to go on and on.
  • I don't disagree with your option! None of the other computer companies work as hard as Apple to simply the products usage. In some ways I do like that, in others it build faults hope that nothing can go wrong. If Apple is going to lead people to the cliff they better give them the parachute and teach them to use it just in case they fall off!
  • I love how people are more than willing to pay hundreds for a smart phone with contract or without but balk when it comes to paying for online storage and backup? In fact they think it is the manufacturer’s responsibility to now provide data recovery services when they couldn’t care enough to figure out how to properly protect their own data. In my many years of tech support and data recovery experience the only time people think there data is valuable is after they’ve lost it.
  • I agree. Paying for cloud storage should be a given this day and age. As I mentioned above, I use microsoft because I have so much storage for little pay out. I think that the phone peddlers, should at least discuss this in their sales pitch. No matter what phone they are selling. They need to tell their customers, if this phone is damaged, you data is gone unless you purchase cloud based back ups.
  • It depends how much you store as to whether you need to pay for storage. I've not needed to pay yet, but I would if I needed to
  • Yes. I thought about this more. I am drifting more to the central side of this story and issue. I agree with both sides at this point. But, no, apple does not need to dissasemble and take the memory to another phone/device to get your data. You have to buy off site storage for your data on your phone.
  • I saw this last week, and being the journalist that I am decided to check a few facts. And it's interesting that the person who is credited on this report has a massive axe to grind when it comes to Apple. So that alone should discredit the basics of the story. I can understand Apple having a policy about not doing data recovery for privacy and other reasons. Bu there's no reason they can't recommend various vetted data recovery companies. Does Apple really care about their customers? These kinds of things at least gives the competition the opportunity to argue for why they are better than Apple.
  • CBS made Apple out to be the bad guy here. The other side of the story beings balance. But Apple isn't going to respond to this.
    Apple is in the business to sell products and yes, even fix them in some situations. They will NEVER do what this lady did. The lady that got the pictures back by frankestiening the hard drive from the old phone to the motherboard of a another phone.
    Apple Offers a service that takes care of pictures called iCloud backup. it's free to 5GB and then VERY CHEAPLY offer upgrades to storage, IF YOU WANT IT. they also let you hook the phone to ANY computer and take care of YOUR data YOURSELF. i.e. NOT APPLES RESPONSIBILITY.
    Apple makes you agree in the terms of use that your data is yours and they will not be responsible for it.
    Apple is not in the data recovery business, there are MANY companies out there that specialize in that. Apple does not and therefore will NOT solder your hard drive to a machine to recover data that could have been saved with the service offered by that same company. iCloud.
    The lady spent $300 to recover her photos. $300 would have paid for the .99 50GB for 25 YEARS.
    or the $2.99 a month option for 8.3 YEARS and the $9.99 for 2.5 YEARS. and that's if it was just $300.
    The Reason Apple BANNED the lady was because she was basically promoting her business via Apple forums which is Not allowed. You can not offer a charged service via apple forums. So, she got banned.
    Apple is NOT the bad guy here. No other phone maker would have done anything either.
    What if this had been a Samsung phone? it wouldn't even BE a story. CBS just basically lied to get views and clicks.
    Apple sell products. They even warranty their products. but never did apple say they were in the data recovery business. They did say they were in business to offer a phone and a service designed to care of stupid people. The phone owner was a stupid and it cost her over $300 for the pics, but her device was destroyed in the process of getting those pictures back.
    Someone needs to do a REAL story on this instead of bashing apple for doing nothing wrong.
  • If you bothered to look at her post on the Apple Forum she did not pimp her self it only stated other options were available. Patching the original owners logic board back to a working state is not 'frankestiening' Replacing the damaged SMT components and repairing the trace lines is all she is doing. No different than you replacing the fuse in your car! As one who has posted responses on the forum as well only telling someone to go to an independent repair shop as Apple wanted to wash their hands of fixing an older system I had my comment pulled as well. While it's their right to monitor their forum, someone who is trying to help the person shouldn't have there posting pulled that is not promoting them selves only expressing there are other options that Apple is unwilling to offer, again not promoting ones self. Other postings asking about a display problem on the newer 2016/17 MacBook Pro's have been pulled as well. These where just inquiries on what the person encountered, nothing more! So Apple has a tendency to remove even inquiries of a problem as well. Thats not being honest or open either. It's becoming an Apple Corp love fest not serving the Apple user community as a whole. If I was a Apple monitor I would have reached out to the poster trying to find a solution to their problem not wiping it away, thats good PR! Maybe there is no solution within Apple then be upfront. By going to the next level of creating a solution if the volume is great enough, again good customer care. Even if it's not within Apple at all.
  • CBC, not CBS. (Canada). Apple was doing something wrong. They were denying that it can be fixed because they don't want to admit they don't want to do it (for whatever reasons is irrelevant). It's these kinds of things that would drive me to an Apple competitor, if there was one. (And Apple seems to know it and take advantage of that.)
  • No. Apple was not doing "something wrong". the device is wrecked. I was under the understanding that the company just plugged the phone into some sort of software and got the photos and data. but having to do a major surgery on the phone. NO, not apples problem. If it were simple, yes, then apple should at least provide the service. Also, this woman being banned on the apple forum site, if she was indeed promoting her business, I agree 100 percent with her being nailed with the banhammer. furthermore, Louis Rossman is a child when it comes to apple.