Reaching into an aquarium tank filled with murky saltwater and sediment collected at the end of a pier in Dundalk, Digital Evidence Consultant Kevin Smith retrieved a hard drive that had been marinating for 24 hours.

About 45 minutes later, after meticulously drying, cleaning and inspecting the device, he connected a chip from its circuit board to a power source and monitor to retrieve his quarry: files containing photographs of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

The demonstration, conducted by Elkridge-based Atlantic Data Forensics (ADF), gave U.S. Congressman C. A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger and Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman a first-hand look at a free service being offered to Ellicott City businesses destroyed or displaced by the historic July flood.

“That’s being a good neighbor,” said Ruppersberger. “And you’re local, that’s what I like.”

As of publication time for this issue of The Business Monthly, four businesses have taken advantage of the offer and others are expected to follow as the county steps up efforts to make affected business owners aware of the service.

Atlantic was able to help three of those initial businesses recover their data intact. According to company CEO Brian Dykstra, data from the fourth business was lost through a non-professional attempt to disassemble the device and access the hard drive before it was brought to his company.

In business since 2007, ADF moved from Snowden River Parkway to its new location just off Route 1 in Elkridge four months ago.

Rewriting Fate

Sam Coyne, owner of Craig Coyne Jewelers, was one of the first Ellicott City business owners to benefit from ADF’s assistance after an introduction facilitated by the Howard County Economic Development Authority (HCEDA).

“We’re a small business, but a mighty jewelry company,” Coyne said, having amassed more than 11,000 customers, including many big spenders, during more than 16 years on Ellicott City’s Main Street.

“We maintain an incredible amount of detail,” Coyne said, including anniversaries, birthdays, personal preferences and even customer lifestyles, in addition to design notes, sketches and photographs.

“That data is critical to conducting our business,” Coyne said. “Without those records, we had no way to even reach out to clients with current orders because we only list the last four letters of the customer name on our job cards for security reasons.”

Normally, he said, the company’s records are backed up on a server in the building’s attic, but oppressive summer heat led to a fateful decision to move the server on the day of the flood and conduct the backup from the comfort of the first floor.

“We were able to use the retrieved data to do a complete inventory of merchandise we own and jewelry left in our care,” Coyne said. “It helped us determine that nothing at all had been lost in the flood, which was a great relief.”

Convenient Solution

Gesturing to the aquarium, “It’s pretty much what happened to a lot of the victims of the Ellicott City flood,” said Jason Briody, director of forensic services for ADF. In fact, one of Coyne’s three recovered laptops had been buried under about four feet of silt and mud for a week before business owners were allowed to reenter their premises.

Considerable effort goes into recovering from a flood, Briody said. “What we want to do, in our small way, is help victims recover. When you lose your data, it’s really your lifeblood.”

Once laptops, cellphones, external hard drives or other devices are delivered to ADF, technicians get to work using rubbing alcohol, cotton swabs, towels, compressed air and other cleaning products to counteract the damage and make sure contact points aren’t corroded or crossed.

Turnaround time depends on the type of data recovery requested.

“What we did in the demonstration can be done in 24 to 48 hours,” Briody said. “If it’s a much lower data recovery, if we would have to open the hard drive, it would be more in the realm of weeks.”

Not knowing where to turn at first, home construction industry recruiting firm The Hire Power shipped one of its hard drives to a data recovery business in California before hearing about ADF’s service.

“That’s one of the reasons we’re trying to spread the word about this, so people know this free service is here, and we’re ready and willing to help,” Briody said.

Moreover, he said, recovery companies typically charge based on the time period that customers are out of data. “If you want to do an emergency recovery, there’s a [cost] multiplier that gets attached, but even so you’re not going to see it for a little bit because of the distance involved and the volume these companies see.”

Staying Afloat

Data recovery is only part of the spectrum of services ADF offers. The company also offers digital forensics, cybercrime investigation and E-discovery (the electronic portion of litigation discovery) and also backs up its work with expert witness services for court cases.

Now that people are being allowed to return to their Main Street businesses for an extended period of time, Briordy said more business owners may be able to find drives and computers that were lost and begin bringing them to ADF for recovery.

“We’re working to get the word out and doing a lot more outreach to [Main Street] business owners,” Kittleman said.

In a postscript to his own data recovery success, Coyne said he would like to return to Ellicott City, but may have to consider a new location because of the time it would take to shore up and rebuild at his current address.

“We need proper security and proper lighting and display areas for our business,” he said, noting that even a short service disruption could have negative consequences.

At the moment, Coyne Jewelers is operating out of a conference room in the banking facility it uses, and is arranging congruent customer meetings at coffee shops and other convenient public spaces to reduce liability by returning as much personal property as possible.

A number of Main Street business owners face a similar predicament in trying to continue their operations. Many of them met at the newly reopened Wine Bin in Ellicott City on Aug. 28 for an update and to discuss their options for the future.

“There’s a lot of interest in coming back when Main Street is rebuilt,” Coyne said, “but few of us know if we can stay afloat that long.”