Dog who lost all their photos by Unsplash

What’s your personal data backup plan?

What would happen if you lost your phone today? If you laptop hard drive crashed? If your USB-drive became unreadable?

Every few months, I see a post on Facebook where someone has lost their phone, and thus all their photos and contacts. It’s 2017 people. We really shouldn’t be having these issues.

So, what’s your plan against data loss? If you are not sure, I think this is a good place to start. I follow a few principles here:

  • Your biggest danger is damage to, and loss of physical devices that you have. This includes your phone, laptop, USB-drives, or your pile of USB hard drives. Other things can cause you to lose data, but we are 80/20-ing here. Be very prepared to deal with the loss of any physical device.
  • The easier it is for you to use a system, the more likely you are to stick to it. The main cost of all these is the behavioural changes you’d have to make to how you live and work. Thus, have as much of your data covered by the “no [ongoing] effort” option, and the majority of the remainder by the “almost no effort” option. If you’ve got anything left, it will take a bit more discipline, but at least it will be on a relatively small set of data.
  • Overall, leave the question of “where your data physically is” to the cloud people. They employ systems way more complex and robust than we’ll manage. Your files aren’t “on” your phone/computer. That’s merely a copy.
Your data shouldn’t live “in” your computer

There are many valid objections to this kind of strategy, including, but not limited to, privacy concerns. I address some of them later.

The no-effort stuff

Use tools where your data sits on the cloud by default. There’s nothing extra for you to do. Done. This includes Google Apps for email, contacts (generally in collaboration with your Android or iOS phone) and documents. Go to Microsoft or Apple if you don’t like Google. For you code, it should be on GitHub. Your random notes? Evernote.

A special mention should be made for the photos/videos you take with your phone, as for most people, this makes up the bulk of the data you generate: use Google Photos. It automatically uploads your pics and videos when you get to WiFi. It can even upload pictures you receive via other apps, like Messenger and WhatsApp. iCloud does something similar.

While we are talking about media: give up on your stockpiles of MP3s and pay for a streaming service. It will have 95% of what you want there, and most of them will allow you to download a subset for offline use, so you don’t waste mobile data. What should do with your (totally not pirated, of course) series and movie collection is a bit more complicated. I’d suggest a mix of using streaming services like Netflix and Showmax, and simply becoming less attached to your hoard. If you have it, great, if you lose it, you can find it again, but only if you need to. This body of data is disposable. Don’t waste any effort in safeguarding it.

This should cover the needs of most people’s personal data needs. The onus should be to ask why something does not go here, rather than why.

The little-effort stuff

For whatever reason, you need to (sometimes) use these files offline. Maybe they are Excel spreadsheets, or your dope-ass Sketch files. Who knows. Use an online storage service (Google Drive, Dropbox, iCloud). The files will almost always be used on a computer, so install the sync app, and only work in the app’s folder. Think of your Dropbox/whatever folder as the only safe place to save data on your laptop. If a file is not there, you obviously don’t love it enough.

I find it helpful to think of the online copies as the main ones, and whatever sits on your laptop as a temporary copy that you can lose at a moment’s notice. Thus, it could be helpful to not sync your whole account, but limit it to a “temporary” folder that represents files you are actively using. Even more extreme is to not use a sync app at all, and (re)upload a file after a work session via the browser. This is a bit more work, but does make it less likely that you accidentally delete some files, and this error is synced online, you falling prey to ransomware, or losing your device before it had a chance to sync.

Once you’ve got this sorted, you that probably covers all your data needs. However, these tools are less ideal if you work with bigger photo/video files. If you shoot lots of photos in RAW, record audio or produce video, the rate of you producing the data, and need to organise the files may overwhelm the more general purpose services, but this will be addressed by the next section.

More industrial solutions

💾 💾 💾 💾 💾

This is old school backup land. The theories from previous decades, ages before apps and mobile devices, still stand, but the tools have gotten better. Here, we cover caches of data that’s large (will take days if not weeks to upload), and we’d like a bit more protection against accidental edits. In most cases, these are videos or photos.

The key difference is that your offline copy is the main copy, the most up to date and well organised. The backup is there to restore its state, possibly missing the most recent changes and additions.

First, use a service such as CrashPlan ($6 a month) to create your online back up. This might take a few weeks to do the initial backup, but is pretty rock solid: it protects against accidental changes and deletions, so you really have to go to some deliberate effort to lose this data. However, if you do need it, it might take a long time to restore it via the internet. Thus: have a second, local backup.

The job of this backup is to get you up and running a bit faster. Use an external hard drive. Tools like CrashPlan can help you scheduling this, but Windows has built in tools for this, as does macOS. Keep the external hard drive at home or your place of work.

A word on legacy data

This is the contents of that flash drive, or pile of external USB drives from your university days. It might be class assignments, it might be low-res porn. Who knows.

  • Upload your photos to Google Photos. They’d be good for laughs, and Photos will order them by date automatically. Use the Uploader tool if there’s a lot of it.
  • Ignore your media files.
  • Everything else: you probably won’t ever look at this again, but if you still want to hold onto them in case: zip them up first (one big file is easier to transfer than lots of small files), manage along with your other data.

After this, feel free to dispose of those 80Gb USB drives. They are probably about to fail anyways.

Your battle plan

Once this is all done, if you lose all your devices, either to loss or physical damage, this is what you do:

  1. No-effort stuff: it’s all there. You never lost anything.
  2. Cloud storage: ditto, bar maybe the changes since your last sync. Hopefully this isn’t more than a few hours’ worth.
  3. For the proper backup stuff, if you have the local copy, restore from that. Otherwise, wait for the restore from the internet. Find a fast connection to do that faster.

Bonus: you can follow this line of reasoning even if you haven’t lost your device. In particular, moving to a new phone/laptops is now super easy!

Ah-ha, what about…

I don’t like giving my data to the internets. They might misuse it.

Fair, but this means a bit more work for you. You should then mainly use the internets to transfer and store encrypted data, which you decrypt and use on your device. Do make peace with the tradeoff between how much you want to protect your data from loss, how much effort do you want to spend on data protection, and how much you want to protect your privacy. There’s no free lunch.

Generally, none of this should stop you from using the internet for backup. Tools like CrashPlan encrypt your data, so only you can read it, so manage more of your data that way.

What if Google goes under?

It’s very unlikely that one of the big guys go down before you’ve notice of it, and chance to move your data. But if you are worried about it, find a way of either mirror your data across two services (probably doesn’t work as well as you’d hope), or periodically export your data and store it with another company.

Bandwidth/mobile data is expensive

Go to a friend with fast/unlimited internet to do your initial backups. The incremental changes will be a lot cheaper. Otherwise completely offline is possible, but take quite a bit more effort. Be prepared to send stuff around via post. Have two/three external external hard drives you keep in different places. Read up more about the 3–2–1 rule.

This still sounds too hard

Maybe this should be easier, but we are trying to protect your data now, with what we have. A valid alternative is decide that you don’t actually care that much if you lose some/all your data. As I mentioned earlier with your movie collection, you probably don’t need all your data, but it’s best to have thought it through before you lose it.

What about RAID?

Do we have to? ok. Let’s talk about RAID. (It’s a way of using multiple hard drives to protect against a single drive failing). My advice is to not to bother. It only protects a very specific situation: where one drive in one of your devices breaks, but the rest of the device is fine. It has uses when you are dealing with a lot of infrastructure, but doesn’t offer enough benefits to justify the complexity it might add to your personal life.

What this is not

This post doesn’t talk about the following, and they should be addressed elsewhere:

  • Protecting your data against unauthorizes access, including, but not limited to Russian hackers.
  • Network Attached Storage for your home, because reasons.
  • Whatever stuff you need to do for work.
  • Managing your own general level of anxiety, and the fact that the world is unfair, uncaring, and filled with things that are both outside of your control but also possessing the potential to deeply hurt you. Choosing to focus on one area of your life where you can exercise some control provides only an illusion of power and safety, but maybe you should accept it as a coping mechanism.