3DSC 2.29: Create Backups of Your Files

Last year I suffered a catastrophic malfunction of my main hard drive.  After returning from a work trip I settled in to check email only to find my computer unwilling to boot.  This is not the first time I have broken a computer.  Fortunately this time I was prepared.  The step that saved me in this instance is today’s task: backup your files.

Difficulty: Intermediate
Active Time: 15-30 minutes
What it Protects You From: Data loss

Backup Your Files

Local Backups:  Local backups are stored offline, in your home or office.  These backups are typically stored on an external or networked-attached hard drive.  They protect you very well against the most common reasons for data loss like hard drive failure.  Local backups will not protect your data against larger data loss events.  If your house is flooded, burns down, or is struck by a tornado, your data is probably gone, too.  There are some major advantages to local backups though.

Local backups can be incredibly up-to-date.  This is especially true if they are automated and occur over Wi-Fi, like Apple’s Time Capsule.  Backups that require user involvement, like plugging in a hard drive and running manually may occur less frequently.  The other major advantage of local backups is security.  Backups that are only stored in your home are much, much safer from data breaches than those stored in the cloud.  Cloud backups have some serious advantages, though.

I recommend creating a local backup, even if you choose to do an additional offsite backup (offsite backups are described below).  The tools and techniques you use will vary depend on your operating system.

  • Windows systems: There are several methods you can use to backup a Windows machine.  If you only wish to backup select files, check out CryptSync (described below in Offsite Backups).  If you wish to use Windows’ built-in tools, you should first encrypt a hard drive using VeraCrypt or BitLocker.  Use Windows Backup and Restore (Windows 7) or File History (Windows 8/10) to backup data to the encrypted drive. The Windows tools work but are very basic.  If you desire a more feature-rich tool, check out Genie9 Timeline Pro.  I used it for a long time with great results.
  • OS X: I strongly recommend using Mac’s built in Time Machine backup utility.  Time Machine backups can be secured with AES-128 encryption.  If using the AirPort Time Capsule their transmittal via Wi-Fi is also encrypted.  Additionally, Time Machine is seamlessly integrated and user-friendly.

Offsite Backups:  The biggest advantage to offsite backups: they are impervious to local disasters.  It doesn’t matter if a power surge fries all your electronics or your house is leveled by a hurricane.  Your data is still stored on a cloud server somewhere and is recoverable.  This is a double-edged sword though.  Your data is stored offsite, on a machine that you do not control.  It may be vulnerable to data breaches or rogue employees.  Even if you delete it, you have no assurance it is really gone.  You are placing your trust in a faceless company.

While I do not backup to the cloud, there are ways you can do so more securely.  First, you can encrypt your files before uploading them.  The program I prefer for this in Windows is called Cryptomator.  Cryptomator automatically encrypts files individually as they are uploaded to the cloud. Cryptomator is free and available for Windows, Mac, and Linux computers, as well as iOS and Android mobile devices.

Windows and Mac offer the ability to backup to OneDrive and iCloud, respectively.  While I may reservedly recommend iCloud if you are insistent on cloud storage (as detailed in my piece on cloud storage threat models), I recommend strongly against using OneDrive.  Windows’ increasingly heavy-handed data collection (rolled out with Win10) makes me distrustful.  As does their privacy policy.

Final Thought: No matter what you choose, use something.  I have lost both personal and work-related data before.  It is not a situation I would wish on anyone.  And, protect your backup with strong encryption.  It contains everything your computer does, and should be equally protected.

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