Cold Storage & Personal Data: Tick, Tick, Tick


[Updated on September 29, 2015]

[This post is a hopeless plug for my new book Understanding Personal Data Security. It’s said that there are two high-level categories of emotional exploitation within most advertising: Greed and fear. In this post, I exploit fear.]


 

I write a lot about electric vehicles, home theater, and personal data security. My grandmother always told me to do what I know. There’s a reason I’m not teaching you how to replace the tranny in your Ford F-150 or giving you advice for that Sunday casserole.

In personal data security, I try to write about topics that center around the real world. Strong passwords, data backup, centralized data storage. That type of thing. The areas of data archival and backup are especially fun. So simple in theory, yet so neglected and difficult in practice. The majority of us (well over 50%) never—as in never—backup our data. It’s truly mind blowing.

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Yet here we are, a culture that totes sleek smartphones and tablets and captures almost exclusively digital photos and video. Instead of going to Walgreens to develop old school film, we upload JPEG images from our mobile devices directly to cloud-based social media like Facebook, Instagram, and Flickr. All while our kids indulge in Kik, Snapchat, Vine, and stuff we’ve never heard of.

Middle class Americans create a lot of data; more and more every day. As an increasing number of us acquire highly capable mobile devices, we automatically begin snapping high-resolution photos and capturing high-definition video—along with meta data like location and people tagging. Just more ones and zeroes. We throw our files up in the cloud, sync with a local computer, or simply ignore our increasingly large treasure trove of digital delights. What was once expensive and somewhat rare is now cheap and plentiful. In the old days, no middle class consumer could afford 100,000 print photos or dozens of hours of home movies.

Now I have those thousands of photos and hundreds of videos sitting on a $200 NAS device on my home network. Amazing. We’re all curators and archivists today, whether we realize it or not.

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Once, back in ’06 or so, I had a hard drive crash on a server computer in my home. Just so happens that server was storing all of my family photos. I shipped it to a special recovery service in Atlanta. But they delivered sad news: It was toast. Unrecoverable. 16 years of family photos down the crapper. Gone.

Forever.

Fortunately, I had a backup. The problem? It was five months old. So yes, I recovered nearly 16 years worth of precious heirloom family photos, videos, and personal data files. The term “relief” doesn’t begin to explain how I felt. But I was still kicking myself for having lost nearly half a year’s worth of digital data.

I’m a picture fiend. We used to be called shutter bugs (back when most cameras featured physical shutters). I love to take tons of casual, unplanned photos on nearly a daily basis. For some people, five months of photos isn’t much. For me, it was thousands of shots and a chunk of the lives of my daughters that I’ll never retrieve. As in never.

A valuable lesson, to say the least. Now you know why I preach about offsite backups and redundant data. Because what happened to me happens to most people. Except most people lose everything.

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I recently joined the artsy no-ads social network Ello. I’m really enjoying the wealth of photography, art, sculptures, 3D-printed objects, poetry, and writing. But the reality is that the vast majority of this creative expression is stored digitally. Statistically, roughly half of this data will eventually be lost to digital devastation. A hard drive will crash. A laptop will be stolen. A fire or flood will occur. Nasty crap. But it happens every day.

And the data will go “poof.” Forever lost. Notice how I keep saying “forever” in terms of lost data and “never” in terms of how often people backup that precious data?

securityWith my head in this mode of OCD data protection, a recent article in Ars Technica naturally caught my attention. A Dutch entrepreneur, Martijn Wismeijer (@twiet), had an NFC (Near Field Communication) chip implanted in each hand. The purpose? To securely store data.

Ironically, this is called “cold storage.” Because of the NFC, this data isn’t static. Using any of dozens of common smartphones or tablets on the market that feature NFC capabilities, this man can update the data stored on the chips in his hands.

Pretty damn cool. Now, I realize a lot of you are getting squeamish at the prospect of having radio frequency-capable memory chips implanted in your body. Can’t say I blame you there (although I think I’d be willing to do this).

But squeamishness aside, why is cold storage so cool? Because it partially deals with the issue of “offsite” backup. Remember 9/11? Remember all the companies that went bankrupt after the physical devastation? Know why most of them went under? They lost all of their customer data. And they lost all of their customer data because their backups were stored onsite.

Cold storage solves this problem. To a certain extent. It’s an interesting model, one where the data resides wherever you happen to be. Home, office, coffee shop, a friend’s house, driving down the 404. Now, I do want to clarify that this man is storing Bitcoin data and the small (2 x 12 millimeters) capsules injected between his thumb and index finger contain very little information. It’s basically just a few bank account numbers. Then again, a photo is just a few (million) pixels with location markers and color assignments.

We all know how this story ends. Storage capacities in all forms of modern media have expanded at an exponential rate. Eventually, these small flesh-injected capsules will sport enough storage to backup all of your personal photos and videos. At which time you’ll have yet another backup option and opportunity to safely archive your precious personal data.

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Until we all get these flesh-based flash drives, however, we still have an ever-increasing volume of valuable personal data that is lost on a daily basis. To date, roughly one-third of computers have crashed and lost all of their data; as in, this has already happened! So, once again, I must reiterate my personal mantra of offsite backup. Weekly, monthly…whatever. You know your habits. I’m not going to tell you how frequently to backup your data. You’re an adult. You wear big girl and big boy pants.

However, what I will tell you: If you don’t make two backup copies of those special memories of your kids, pets, and special events and get them offsite, you’ll eventually lose them. It’s statistically inevitable. Look at the clock on your smartphone or watch and take note of the second hand.

It’s counting down to digital disaster. Tick, tick, tick. Goodbye data. Au revoir precious memories.

The digital demons are coming to get you.

For the time being, you can avoid getting a data capsule stored in your hand. But if you blow off multiple backup copies of your personal data—one of which goes offsite—you won’t avoid losing all of your photos and videos.

Just sayin’.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

3-2-1 Backup Rule: Get Offsite

HBK11Render (1)In my previous blog post, I provided an excerpt from my new book Understanding Personal Data Security. It was about an element of data security that pertains to everyone, not just power users: Backup. Future blog posts will cover other areas of the book, including viruses and malware, centralized data storage, and strong passwords.

Also check out Personal Data Security: BackupsPersonal Data Security: NAS, and Personal Data Security: Password Basics.


As middle class consumers, we create, collect, consume, and archive a relatively massive amount of data. From our digital photos and high-resolution videos to our music collections and work or school documents, it all resides someplace. Smartphones, tablets, and laptops are the home of most of this data. More often than not, our personal bits and bytes are scattered across multiple devices. It’s typically a mess.

Which means that a solid backup scheme is even more important. Getting all that data archived on a reliable storage device and safely stored is a goal most consumers don’t achieve (or even attempt). Whether through ignorance or just plain laziness, the majority of us (yes, I’m talking about you) don’t have a current and complete backup of our personal data.

As in other areas of life, like dieting, exercise, or even homework, we need a routine. A system. A habit. For personal backup, this digital discipline is embodied in the 3-2-1 Backup Rule.

The 3-2-1 Backup Rule involves three simple steps that will help ensure the integrity and resiliency of your personal files:

  1. Maintain three copies of any important files (a primary and two backups).
  2. Store the backup files on two different media types (such as hard disk + optical media or Dropbox + hard disk) to protect against different types of hazards.
  3. Store one copy offsite.

First, let me make things even easier: You can forget about Step 2. It’s much more important that you focus on adhering to your backup schedule like a religious rite. Backing up digital data is like dieting: Everyone cheats. So instead of attempting to emulate an enterprise organization and worrying about different media types for your multiple backups, let’s step back and simply worry about creating your backups with regularity in the first place.

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Three copies? Why three copies, Curt? Isn’t backup about the main data and a backup copy—used to restore the main data if it becomes corrupted, accidentally deleted, or the device on which it’s stored craps the bed? Yes, at a high level, that’s the goal. However, the reality is that you must store a copy offsite. Get it the heck out of your house or office.

Why? Because the event that destroys your primary data could very likely also damage or destroy your backup copy. Have you or anyone you’ve known suffered flooding? How about a fire? What about theft? While less common, what about tornadoes, hurricanes, and typhoons?

During the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City, hundreds of businesses were severely compromised because their backup copies resided in the same location as their primary data. When buildings were severely damaged or even collapsed, both the primary and backup copies were destroyed. As a result, many of these businesses went bankrupt. One simple deficiency affected the jobs of thousands of Americans and service to millions of customers.

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Most consumers, when considering the backup of their personal data, erroneously think that offsite backup is only for enterprise organizations. It’s not. Offsite backup is essential for anyone. Fire, flooding, and theft is simply too common. And your personal data too precious.

Everyone creates or collects data at a different rate. Some people (like me) take photos or videos on nearly a daily basis. Most of us do so several times per week. Thus, the frequency of your backup schedule is subjective. But regardless of that schedule, you need to stay true to it. If our doctor said, “If you don’t stick to this diet, you’re going to die in a month,” most of us would stick to the diet. Likewise, if I told you that, if you don’t stick to your backup schedule, you’re virtually guaranteed to lose some or all of your valuable data, how would you respond?

When considering an offsite storage location, ensure that it’s far enough from your house that it won’t be affected by whatever takes out your primary data. Thus, a shed in your backyard isn’t an option. Neither is the glove box in your car that’s sitting in your garage or driveway. Consider a safety deposit box, your office or school, or the house of a friend or family member. But just get it the heck out of your house and out of your neighborhood.

However, don’t go so far offsite that it becomes difficult to maintain your offsite swap schedule. Assume you make a backup once a week. Thus, you would also need to take a copy to the offsite location once per week. If that site is three hours away at your parents’ house, it becomes impractical and simply won’t happen. Think practical. Think doable.

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Consider your lifestyle and personal habits. Don’t allow theory to overtake reality and craft a backup strategy to which you’ll never adhere. Remember: You have to maintain your backup scheme forever. Being diligent for only a few months and then gradually forgetting or getting lazy means you’ll still eventually lose data. It’s just the sad reality of how it works.

Surveys and studies reveal that 35-40% of Americans never—as in never—backup their data in any way. According to Pivotal IT, 140,000 computer hard drives fail every week in the United States, destroying data. Losing precious memories of loved ones or special events sucks (let alone tax records and work documents).

You may or may not suffer from OCD, but in the case of the backup of your personal data, you might want to start getting obsessed. If not, you’ll be crying in your beer because those kindergarten photos of your kids or that novel-in-progress just got sent to digital hell.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Personal Data Security: Backups

Today’s blog post is an excerpt from my book Understanding Personal Data Security. It’s straightforward and a very quick read. It covers four areas of personal data security: Centralized data, backups, passwords, and viruses/malware. Below, you’ll find a section from Chapter 3: Backups.HBK11Render (1)

Future blog posts will provide excerpts from the other core chapters of the book, including Chapter 2: Centralized Data, Chapter 4: Passwords, and Chapter 5: Viruses & Malware. Also check out Personal Data Security: NAS and 3-2-1 Backup Rule: Get Offsite.

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Curt Robbins


Scary Stats

In 2011, website Backblaze conducted a data backup survey, learning that only 7% of respondents performed daily backups. It also found that 35% of computer owners never backed up their data. 51% of owners backup less than once a year. 31% of PC users have lost all of their data files. According to photographer Peter Krogh, a vocal proponent of regular backups, there are two groups of people: Those who have already suffered a storage failure and those who will experience one in the future.

In 2012, anti-virus company Trend Micro released a study of 1,000 Americans that revealed that 40% of them never—as in never-–backup their data (results very similar to those revealed by the Backblaze survey). If their hard drive crashed tomorrow, nearly half of all people would lose everything. Interestingly, half of respondents reported being married. Yet, 83% of those married didn’t have a backup of their wedding photos (they can’t all be on the verge of divorce)!

In August 2014, it was reported that Russian hackers had amassed a database of 1.2 billion (as in billion) stolen user names and passwords and had gained access to half a billion email accounts. According to Hold Security, the combined attacks reached every area of the web and more than 400,000 websites. The New York Times hired an independent security expert, who verified the authenticity of the stolen account information. “Before, we were amazed when 10,000 passwords [went] missing,” said Alex Holden, Hold Security’s chief information security officer. “Now we’re in the age of mass production of stolen information.”


If you haven’t suffered a data failure (and with it, forever lost some precious memories of loved ones and special occasions), try to avoid being one of the sad people who are good at conducting regular backups because they have experienced such digital disaster. If you haven’t suffered a loss, take it from one-third of your friends, family, and co-workers: It sucks. The relatively minor investments of time and money you will make in educating yourself and securing your data can prevent all of the heartache of those who have suffered “catastrophic data loss.”

external USB backup drive

Regardless of the efficiency of your backup plan, don’t be afraid to spend some money on the best hardware you can afford (in the case of backups, this would be the NAS [Network Attached Storage] and internal and external disk drives). Again, you’re protecting your cherished digital photo albums and home videos—not to mention other important files, like legal documents, school papers, and heirloom family recipes.

Secure Backup Rules

Following the simple rules below will help you create a successful backup plan that can be executed on a regular basis. Should disaster strike and your primary hard drive craps the bed, these rules will also help ensure a smooth and successful restoration of the data from the backup device or service.

  • Backup either daily, weekly, or bi-weekly (depending on how frequently you create or acquire new data).
  • Create two backups, one for onsite storage and one for offsite.
  • Determine and strictly adhere to an offsite storage schedule.
  • Do not encrypt or compress your backups.
  • Automate your backup(s). This is child’s play with the available software. Do not assume you will run a manual backup with regularity and passion. You won’t.
  • Even if you have very little data to backup, don’t use a USB flash drive, which is slower and less reliable in the long run than hard disk drives.
  • Perform incremental backups (described below).

Assume the hard drive (or drives) on which you store your important personal data crashes tomorrow. Will you lose data? How much? This is really the litmus test. If your primary data storage (called your master data or primary copy) crashed and burned an hour from now, how would it affect you? If this happened to the majority of people, they would lose most or all of their data. In other words, most people have either zero backup or an old, out-of-date copy.

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Local vs. Cloud Backup

There are two primary types of backups: Local (comprised of both onsite and offsite copies) and cloud-based. Local backup simply involves copying your primary data to a hard drive hanging off a computer sitting on your home network or a redundant drive in a RAID 1 NAS. Cloud backup means using your broadband connection to upload your data to be backed up to a remote server somewhere on the internet. Dozens of companies offer consumer-grade online, or “cloud” based backup services. To learn more about cloud-based backup, see the Cloud Backup section below. [Sorry, you’ll have to buy the book for that one.]


Curt Robbins is a technical writing consultant and instructional designer who is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.