3DSC Day 28: Backup Your Files

In January 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.

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; look for a full review in the near future.
  • OS X: I strongly recommend using Mac’s built in Time Machine backup utility.  Time Machine backups can be secured with AES-128 encryption.  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 CryptSync.  CryptSync lets you choose an original folder and a destination folder.  It will duplicate the files in the original, encrypt them, and place them in the destination folder.  If you are using something like Dropbox, you can assign your Dropbox folder as CryptSync’s Destination folder.  Due to Dropbox’s terms of service and privacy policy, this is the ONLY way I recommend using their service.  The same goes for Google Drive and other mainstream cloud storage providers.

Windows and Mac offer the ability to backup to OneDrive and iCloud, respectively.  While I would consider using iCloud, I recommend strongly against using OneDrive.  Windows’ increasingly heavy-handed data collection (rolled out with Win10) makes me distrustful.  As does their privacy policy.  I would reservedly recommend iCloud based on Apple’s improved security and strong stance on privacy.

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.

2 thoughts on “3DSC Day 28: Backup Your Files”

  1. Justin, have you tried https://cryptomator.org/?

    I routinely use dropbox, using either VeraCrypt or 7Zip to encrypt the files before I upload. This streamlines the process. Its free, client-side encryption with open source software and no registration. (However, the iOS app is a paid app, but worth it for me). Im still testing it out but it is very user friendly. I’m not a cryptographer, but with my limited knowledge I’m thoroughly impressed with the depth and openness of their security architecture.

    Good read on DropBox scanning user content: http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2015/11/how-dropbox-found-a-child-porn-collector-and-a-chess-club-stopped-his-rampage/2/

    Good on DropBox for finding and stoping child pornography, double-good on that knife fighting teacher. Although I have no affiliation with that disgusting underworld, I do have family photos, tax records, bank statements etc that are private and worth encrypting before uploading.

    1. Gabriel,

      Good call on Cryptomator! I should have included this and somehow overlooked it. This will definitely be covered more fully in the future.


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