Article, January 2006
Locked Out of Your Computer?
by Vinny LaBash, Sarasota PC Users Group, Florida
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Some time ago one of my students came to me with what appeared to be an insurmountable problem. She had lent her laptop to a relative who changed the password allowing her access to the hard drive. A dispute developed between the two, and the relative refused to disclose the new password. Upon boot-up, a message appeared that the hard drive was now password protected. She asked me, “How can I break this password and access my computer”?
I had mixed feelings. Most people ask me how to protect their data and equipment, and prevent unauthorized access. I was now being asked to break into a machine. Even though the woman was the legitimate owner of the laptop and the data recorded on it, it felt strange to be on the other side of the fence. After dusting off my notes, we tackled the problem.
Before revealing what actually worked, let’s examine what you can do if you are ever locked out of your own computer.
We started with the presumption that the password was embedded in the BIOS, which stands for Basic Input/Output System. Your BIOS is a set of instructions that tells the computer who it is and what it has. Imagine that every morning you woke up with total amnesia and someone had to tell you not only who you were but how to walk, talk, read, and how to use your brain. The BIOS is like that.
To make things more obtuse, the settings in the BIOS are dynamic. They need some kind of electric power to work. If you take out the battery on your motherboard or let it drain, the BIOS settings are lost. What saves you is that the BIOS resides in ROM (Read Only Memory), which is not battery dependent.
Try resetting the BIOS to its defaults. This can be done by removing the CMOS battery after turning the computer off. The CMOS battery is about the size of a five cent piece, and you’ll find it on the motherboard. Some motherboards will let you reset the BIOS by using jumpers. Your owner’s manual may be helpful. If you don’t have an owner’s manual, go to the manufacturer’s web site, and look for an online version. Some sites list the default BIOS password. Don’t hesitate to call the manufacturer and ask for help. Sometimes the company will have a master password, but you will need to provide the serial number of the machine. If you’re dealing with a laptop, the manufacturer may have more stringent requirements for proof of ownership since theft is a serious issue with these machines.
Many people use dumb passwords like their pet’s name, child’s birthday, anniversary or birth dates, employer’s name, brand of car, etc. Generic passwords like these examples can be easily defeated. Don’t forget to try “password”. I never cease to be amazed at how often this works. The other two most common passwords are God and love.
BIOS manufacturers have their own list of passwords. This website may be helpful. http://www.elfqrin.com/docs/biospw.html.
There are cracking programs that will reveal passwords in many cases. If you decide to go this route, make sure you check for viruses. You can find free programs at the following sites: http://www.cgsecurity.org/
Before accusing me of giving lessons on how to hijack computers, keep in mind that the bad guys already know these tricks and a lot more. There is nothing immoral or illegal about trying to retrieve your own data.
More drastic steps would be to take your machine to a computer repair shop and have the BIOS replaced. You could also have the hard drive replaced, but this would mean losing all information on the disk, and you would need to reinstall your operating system and applications.
What finally worked? The woman baked her cousin’s favorite pie and sent her daughter to deliver it as peace offering. The password was shortly forthcoming. Go figure.
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