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Lost All My Photos: Screwed by Carbonite Backups — FAIL!

Doug Braun
Nov 29, 2016 · 5 min read

I provide casual PC support for a relative who is not very tech-savvy. They are an amateur photographer and have built up decades of photos of family and church events.

The last time I checked, they had 50,000+ photos consuming about 400GB of storage space on their data drive.

They have used the Carbonite cloud service for years to backup their PC files (photos and documents mostly).

Recently, their data drive failed. It could not be recovered.

By the time my brother (he does hardware stuff) and I (I do software stuff) were able to determine what the problem was (We were told, “something isn’t working”), spent more time trying to get the hard drive to work before giving up, waited for a sale on hard drives, ordered one, it arrived, scheduled a time for my brother to install it, then scheduled a time for me to restore all of the data from backup, more than 30 days had elapsed.

We were not concerned or in a rush, because we had automatic remote cloud backups. In the end that would turn out to be horribly misplaced trust.

I attempted to restore all of the files to the new data drive, but I couldn’t find any of the files in the Carbonite Restore area. I tried using the Carbonite app on the PC and also logging into their web interface, but couldn’t find anything for the data drive. I even tried looking in their “recently deleted” section, but nothing was there.

I then searched their online help system and discovered the following unbelievable-to-me-at-the-time facts about their service:

Guess what Carbonite does if it doesn’t see a previously backed up file on your PC? It assumes that the user chose to delete it. Even if an ENTIRE DISK DRIVE goes off-line and tens of thousands of previously backed up files are no longer seen, all at the same time (everything from the data drive in this case), it thinks that the user deleted those files by choice.

Guess what Carbonite does to supposedly “deleted” files after a mere 30 days? It purges all copies it has of those files from all of its redundant servers. *poof* *gone*

In addition, Carbonite has a special feature which we should have used as soon as the drive died. Apparently, we can “Freeze a backup” which will stop it from doing any more backups and will hold the currently backed up files as-is until the account is unfrozen. It would have really helped to have known that at the time, not now, more than 30 days later.

I contacted Carbonite support. The support agent was friendly and knowledgeable about their service and confirmed the “30 days and poof it’s gone” policy and confirmed that we should’ve frozen the backups. He had me download a remote-access app, he remotely accessed the PC and checked things, but was unable to restore anything. He confirmed that there is no other option, no other place to restore the files from, and we have basically lost all of our files because we took too long.

He then escalated it to their “Escalation group”. This agent was also nice and knowledgeable; he also remotely accessed and attempted to restore, but couldn’t find anything to restore. He confirmed that we are out-of-luck and have lost all of our files.

To be fair to Carbonite, now that I know about these limited and esoteric characteristics of their service, they did perform to their documented specifications.

However, I believe this was a huge fail on Carbonite’s part!

People lose files. Equipment fails. Individuals might take longer than this short arbitrary 30 day threshold to fix and restore things (and not know about the magic “freeze your backup” feature). In fact, backup services should not require a user to know these details and to do something extra to stop their precious files from being purged from their paid backup service!

Backup services should take a bigger responsibility in ensuring a user’s data is safe from a variety of circumstances, including slow recovery of equipment (in this case), and their files should also be safe from a user’s lack of knowledge of special features they need to know and execute to retain their already backed up files.

A backup service should DEFAULT to retaining already backed up files for users and it should provide users with many options to retrieve files that it ASSUMES a user no longer wants. Mistakes happen. Things fail. Life is busy. Provide a service that takes these things into account; many other backup services do.

In this case, these tens of thousands of files were NOT deleted by choice by the user. Carbonite made the wrong assumption about these files and then Carbonite’s automatic timer started and after 30 days, poof, all gone.

It would not be difficult for Carbonite to archive periodic snapshots (copies) of all paid users’ backups every quarter or year and make them available in the Restore section to restore from. In addition, it should keep all files that it correctly or incorrectly thinks a user has deleted for at least one year. Thirty days… really?!

For contrast, CrashPlan, which I’ve used for years, has an account setting where the user can set how long they want deleted files retained for possible future restore. It has many options including “90 days”, “6 months”, “a year” and also a “never remove my deleted files from my backup archive” option.

It’s a shame that Carbonite has no such setting.

Backup services should not strive to be ultra efficient at getting rid of a paying user’s already backed up files!

This person LOST ALL of their decades of photographs of their many family and church events; including all the children and grandchildren in various stages of development from two generations of the extended family. They thought their files were safe because they were using modern automatic remote cloud backups. But their library of generations of photographs were not safe and they paid a huge and unimaginable price.

If they had been using a different cloud backup service, they would not have experienced this catastrophic and unrecoverable failure on decades of their memories.

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