f things had gone just a bit differently, James Howells might today be as rich as the Queen of England. The decisive moment, he now thinks, occurred one evening in August, 2013, when he was twenty-eight and at home with his family in Newport, a small city on the Welsh coast. Howells and his partner, Hafina, were raising three children, and family trips—like the one that they had taken to Disneyland Paris—were fun but exhausting. So he had made plans to treat himself to what he called a “lads’ vacation”: a trip with friends to a resort in Cyprus. Howells, an engineer who helped maintain emergency-response systems for various communities in Wales, often worked from home, and that night he decided to neaten up his office. As he recently recalled to me, “The thought process was: I’m going to be drinking every day. I don’t want to be on a hangover and cleaning this mess up when I get back.”
At around 10:30 p.m., Hafina peeked into Howells’s office. “She wanted to have a fag with me,” he remembers. “The office area, with the window open, was the smoking zone.” She chatted with Howells as he chose which items to discard. “I’m chucking this out, putting this back in—bunch of cables, bunch of paperwork, broken mouse.”
In a cluttered desk drawer, he found two small hard drives. One, he knew, was blank. The other held files from an old Dell gaming laptop, including e-mails, music that he’d downloaded, and duplicates of family photographs. He’d removed the drive a few years earlier, after he’d spilled lemonade on the computer’s keyboard. Howells grabbed the unwanted hard drive and threw it into a black garbage bag.
Later, when the couple slid into bed, Howells asked Hafina, who dropped off their kids at day care each morning, if she would mind taking the trash to the dump also. He remembers her declining, saying, “It’s not my fucking job—it’s your job.” Howells conceded the point. As his head hit the pillow, he recalls, he made a mental note to remove the hard drive from the bag. “I’m a systems engineer,” he said. “I’ve never thrown a hard drive in the bin. It’s just a bad idea.”