The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Computer Users

The recent headline news of the industrial-grade hacking suffered by Sony Pictures Entertainment (currently being blamed on North Korea) has data security on the minds of consumers and corporate executives alike. Some experts theorize that a minimal amount of second-level security could have prevented the embarrassing and costly hack that has brought Sony to its knees (both in terms of reputation and money).

Hard drives crash, theft occurs, natural disasters destroy delicate hardware, viruses infect, and thousands of files are sometimes inadvertently wiped out with a single keystroke or tap of a touchscreen. In the digital domain, we seem to be our own worst enemy. Procrastination, sloppiness, ignorance, or just a lousy attitude toward disaster prevention often conspire to wipe out our most precious digital memories.

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The sad part of this equation is that it can all be prevented. Don’t blame the hard drive crash, because you should have had a backup. Don’t blame that flood or roof leak that damaged the spare bedroom where your computer was residing, because you should have had an offsite backup.

Don’t blame the fact that your data is scattered across several devices, because you should have centralized it. And don’t blame the hacker or the virus they gifted you, because you should have been running good, current anti-malware software.

And don’t ever blame the black hat hackers who guess your pathetically weak passwords and steal your identity or siphon your bank account, because you should have created strong passwords—and then changed them on a regular basis.

Yes, all of these very common, yet very painful, digital disasters can be avoided. The TME (time, money, effort) required to secure the digital side of your life isn’t trivial. However, it’s minor in comparison to the possible (and, over time, probable) consequences of mismanaging your valuable data.

Your precious photos, home videos, and school/work documents—and the delicate devices on which these ones and zeroes are captured, archived, viewed, and shared with others—can be secured more easily than you may think. And with a boatload less effort and trauma than if you suffer a digital disaster.

1) Centralize Your Data

Store your files on a single device. No, not your laptop. And no, not even your desktop. I highly recommend a dedicated network access storage device, also known as a NAS. They’re affordable ($100 to more than $1,000 if you want to get fancy), super easy to use, and make backups a snap.

Cost? A few bucks. Effort? Minimal. Simply unbox the NAS, plug it in, and all your wi-fi and Ethernet-connected devices should recognize it.

2) Backup Your Data

Backup software costs from free (build into Windows or Apple’s OS X desktop operating systems) to a few bucks (Second Copy is a great value at only $30). Remember the three golden rules of data backups: Backup on a regular basis (this depends on the rate at which you acquire new data or modify existing files), always make two backups, and always take one copy offsite. Offsite doesn’t mean your basement. Or your neighbor’s house. It also doesn’t mean the other side of the country. It means far enough away from your domicile (or office) that a flood, tornado, or hurricane won’t affect the offsite copy.

The majority of consumers never—as in never, ever—make a single backup of their data. Of those that do manage a backup now and again, they typically never make two and take one offsite. Aside from backing up in the first place, going offsite is the number one delinquency on the part of data owners and businesses alike.

3) Have a Good Firewall

Many devices on your network may provide a firewall. According to Wikipedia, a firewall is “a network security system that controls…incoming and outgoing network traffic based on an applied rule set. A firewall establishes a barrier between a trusted, secure internal network and another network (e.g., the Internet) that is assumed not to be secure and trusted.” Your internet router probably provides a firewall. Your computers may each provide individual firewalls. But don’t play a guessing game. Know which devices have active firewalls, their basic configuration, and learn if you can improve things by updating the rules by which your firewalls allow and deny incoming traffic.

4) Keep Anti-Virus Software Current

The “a virus ate my homework” horror stories have been pervasive enough for so many years that I perceive most people have anti-malware software installed on most of their computers. There’s no excuse for not having a current subscription going on all computers. Why all? Well, your computers are networked by this groovy wireless technology called wi-fi. A single unprotected PC in your home is a gateway for hackers to gain access to your network and all PCs on it.

And don’t give me the excuse that anti-virus software is too expensive. My favorite (and what I use on all of my Windows computers) is Webroot. I purchased a 3-PC, one-year license for $17 on Amazon. Data security doesn’t get any easier or cheaper than this.

5) Have Unique, Strong Passwords

There’s a reason I dedicated a full chapter to the topic of strong passwords in my book Understanding Personal Data Security. If the state of data backup in the United States sucks, then the quality of the average password is even worse. Consider this January 2014 blog post from Slate.com: “The good news is that ‘password’ is no longer the most-popular password on the Internet, according to the latest report from SplashData. The bad news is that it’s still the second-most common—and ‘123456’ is the first.”

Wow. We’re not doing a very good job of securing our online accounts, folks. In the effort of being terse (not my strong suit), let me sum it up, according to Stanford University’s Password Requirements Quick Guide: Longer passwords are better, but shorter passwords are permissible if they are complex. According to Stanford, this means:

  • 8-11 characters: requires mixed case letters, numbers, and symbols
  • 12-15 characters: requires mixed case letters and numbers
  • 16-19 characters: requires mixed case letters
  • 20+ characters: any characters you like

Those are the requirements. But unless you were one of those kids who was actually happy with a passing grade of a C-, Stanford recommends that passwords are a minimum of 16 characters. But how does one remember such a long password? Stanford recommends using passphrases, which are combinations of common words to create a truly unique and uncommon password. An example is “windowelephantpeachrocket.” This 25-character passphrase is considerably more difficult to crack than the most popular password, “123456,” which can be guessed in about one second by even a relatively inept hacker.

For more information (and a really cool infographic), see Stanford University’s Password Requirements Quick Guide.

6) Respect Your Hardware

Ever see people sitting on their bed with their laptop perched on a quilt or blanket? Completely blocking the air intakes, which typically reside on the bottom or sides of the unit? Overheating is one of the primary ways in which delicate electronics get flakey or die. Prevent overheating by positioning your laptop on a flat surface. For desktop units, ensure that intake ports remain unblocked. Airflow is key!

In fact, here’s a cool trick: Take your vacuum cleaner hose and routinely suck out the air intake and “exhaust” of your laptop and desktop computers (desktop units should actually be taken apart and more thoroughly sucked free of dust and pet hair, if possible). Dust and hair (from both humans and pets) forms a blanket on delicate silicon chips and circuits, insulating them and holding in their heat.

This simple trick can extend the life of your computers more than you’d imagine. Do it now!

7) Avoid Distractions

If you’re trying to get work done, avoid the distraction of too much multi-tasking by closing tabs in your browser or otherwise limiting the potential pestering of social media. That ding in Facebook, saying nothing more than one of your hundreds of friends has commented on a stranger’s post, is costing you productivity. For the duration of your work, seriously consider shutting down your email, Facebook, LinkedIn, Vine, Instagram, Ello, and however else you engage in social media. Your work, career, and boss will thank you.


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.

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.