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Why should I backup to the cloud?

More and more, our lives are moving into the digital world. Many of our photos, documents, and other important things exist only in a digital form. On one hand this is pretty amazing: It is much easier to share and preserve our information than ever before. We can easily click a button and share our cherished memories with others, and we don’t have to worry about how much space it takes up.

At the same time this is also a little bit scary: all it takes is one fire, flood, or robbery and all of your memories will be gone. Like many of you, I backup using external drives and DVDs, and that gives me some protection against stuff like the computer getting fried or the hard drive going to bit heaven. However, what happens if we have a big fire at home? Those backups won’t do me much good then.

To increase our data redundancy, we need to look at two things:

  • Backup to multiple storage devices
  • Keep these storage devices in separate physical locations.
The Internet and broadband communications makes the second point really easy. I know that the chances of something like the house burning down is pretty small, but you never know. You still have fire insurance for your home, right, even though you’re not expecting a fire next year? You should also have a plan for your data and have it backed up somewhere safe.

I’m going to talk about how you can back up your data to the cloud and remove some of that physical risk.

Backing up to the cloud


There are many products out there that can upload and backup your data to the company’s servers. These companies usually have multiple levels of redundancy so it’s going to be hard for them to lose your data, at least accidentally. Here are the three big products that come to mind:

Dropbox

Dropbox made the cloud popular; at least, that’s how I remember it. Dropbox is really great for collaborating with others, and you can also use it to backup your personal data.

Pros:

The software is very easy to use, and it also supports incremental updates so even large files are quickly and efficiently backed up.

Cons:

You have to move your files into a special folder before they’re backed up. Employees can also potentially read your data at any time.

Wuala

Wuala is what I currently use. The interface isn’t as nice as in Dropbox, but I can backup any file, anywhere. I’ve used it for more than a year now and I’m pretty happy with it.

Pros:

Data is encrypted locally before being uploaded to Wuala’s servers, and files can be backed up from anywhere. Incremental file support has also finally arrived!

Cons:

The software is a little bit clunky. There used to be a really cool trading feature that let you get storage for “free” by trading unused disk space with others, but it’s been removed in the latest version! :(

Spideroak

I haven’t personally used Spideroak so I can’t comment on the pros & cons, but I have heard good things, and they claim to operate on a zero-knowledge basis which means that your data may as well be a opaque blob as far as they’re concerned. I would recommend reading up on the reviews to see what other people say; I may have to give them a shot myself and see!

But what about security? Can’t they read my files?

This is a valid point, and one that we need to look into. As far as I know, the people at Dropbox are able to read your files anytime and are only restricted from doing so by company policy.

The situation at Wuala and Spideroak is a bit different — they encrypt before it is sent from your computer, so the company cannot read your data directly (though they can probably still read file names and meta data). However, each file has a unique “signature” at least in Wuala’s case, the company uses this information to save space. How? Well, even if it can’t read your files directly, it can still tell if your upload is identical to someone else’s upload by comparing the unique signatures. This allows them to save space on their servers by only storing the actual data once (plus backups).

This is not such a big problem because you can protect your sensitive data by using your own encryption, before adding it to the cloud.

Encrypt before uploading

For your music files, you might not care too much if the company can read the data. For your photos, you might not even care if the company can tell if you and someone else have uploaded the same file, so that they can save space on their servers by storing it only once. However, for legal documents, work projects and things like that, you’d probably rather not take the chance. In this case, you can pre-encrypt the files using an archiver such as 7-Zip or an encrypted volume manager, like Truecrypt.

How does that work? If you use an archiver, what you do is create a compressed archive containing your more sensitive data, add a password to that archive, and then you back up only the archive to the cloud. That way, you can be reasonably confident that there is no way anyone else will be able to read the data even if they could somehow obtain your archive, so long as you also use a strong password!

Truecrypt works pretty much the same way. The difference between Truecrypt and an archiver is that a Truecrypt volume also works like a removable drive. You can open it in Truecrypt, and it will then appear in your computer as another drive that you can copy files to and from, or work directly out of. This is convenient because there is no longer an intermediate step of “zipping up” all the files with a password and copying them to another place.

How to Vanish also has more information on how to use Truecrypt with Dropbox.

A physical copy is still important!
Use “backup” mode instead of “sync” mode

Backing up to the cloud will protect you against accidental data loss, but it may not protect you against intentional data loss. For that reason, I recommend you use all cloud software to backup using the backup feature and NOT the sync feature. Why? Well, let’s say your account gets hacked and your files deleted. If you used backup, then they only get flushed from your cloud account. If you used sync, then the next time your PC syncs they’ll also be deleted from your local hard drive! So, use backup instead of sync.

Having a disconnected physical copy (such as a removable hard drive or USB) is still important since the hackers cannot hack what is not connected to the Internet.

Guidelines for a strong password

Good passwords should be long and complex, contain both upper and lower case letters, numbers, and symbols as well. I don’t think you can remember 100 different such passwords for every online login, and using the same password everywhere is a security risk. Personally I use KeePass Password Safe, use that to generate really strong passwords, then I protect the password safe with a reasonably strong password that I can remember without having to write it down anywhere.

Here are some examples.

Bad

03121975

Merissa

ILovePizza!

Better

z5YkjyTraIfuPizza03121975

03ilpamgniM121975 (derived from: “I love pizza and my girlfriend’s name is Merissa”)

Strong!

536OzRqriBYLhVZGnP6x4qEsiRi1Gdmx

QÄJà‹¹4zÒ¸¤dfA:§¡4ZWCE}‘¬¶ÑʔóR (this sort of password won’t work everywhere)

There’s no way you’ll remember 100 strong passwords, so this is why I recommend using a password safe and protecting that with a reasonably strong password that you can remember. IMO That’s better than using the same password everywhere, though I’d love to hear your feedback as well.

Dear reader, what tips do you have for better protecting your data? I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions, as well as any reviews you’d like to share!

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About

Kevin has left the office, and he is currently fighting the rat race by working on his own business. He enjoys exploring unvisited places around the world and gaining new experiences. He believes that by properly managing our energy and time, we can learn to invest our lives wisely.

36 Comments Kevin on Oct 17th 2011

36 Responses to “Invest Wisely in Protecting Your Most Precious Data: How to Back Up Your Stuff to the Cloud”

  1. Thanks for the very thorough post. It is very helpful. We have been using Crashplan for over a year now and we really like it. We also make sure in addition to this we have stuff backed up on a second external hard drive. That way things are in three places. Seems pretty safe to me.

    • Kevin says:

      Crashplan looks very professional. I’ve browsed a bit around the FAQ and it looks like one solid piece of software. I also like this part: “For the technically savvy: CrashPlan does incremental deltas by block within the file.”. Very interesting! I might have to give them a shot and see.

      • Kevin says:

        I’m just curious how they can really offer unlimited. Is it like web hosting “unlimited”, which really means “go outside normal usage and we’ll kick you”?

        • You pay a yearly fee. I think the fee depends on how much space you need but I do know you get a lot. We have a ton of stuff on there and we aren’t full yet. I would call them or email them to see what they say about this just to be sure. I must say repeat though, we have been very happy with our backups.

  2. Suba says:

    I use 7-zip and Amazon cloud. We also back up (not everything but important docs) on an external hard drive that is part of our “bug out bag”. So far worked ok. But never had to retrieve anything from back yet. Hopefully when the time comes it will still work as planned.

  3. Excellent, detailed post!

    I use an external hard drive as much as I can, and use “better” passwords as much as possible.

  4. I hear Google has a back-up external drive as well…or am I wrong? I haven’t had the need to back things up quite yet, but I’ll keep these tips in mind when I do.

  5. I’m so lazy. I really must back up more!! Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Evan says:

    A lesson I learned the hard way last night! My net worth spreadsheet is kept on drop box and someone became corrupt. Lost 4 of 10 months of data…SUCKS! Now I am searching for freelancers who can hack some info out of it.

  7. There was an interesting Forbe’s piece on the founder of Dropbox and how Steve Jobs tried to buy his company. From that I got a good impression of Dropbox, but Evan’s experience made me rethink that.

    As you say, the Cloud is really the way to go now, so will be looking into your suggestions.

    • Kevin says:

      Evan’s experience is definitely not too great, but this is why I would recommend *not* having a single copy of your data, which is what Dropbox actually encourages with its sync folders. Having a backup service is much better because the writes happen one way (from your computer to the service). I’m really surprised that in Evan’s case, the file somehow got corrupted the way it did. I wonder if the file was opened from two computers at the same time, or something like that.

  8. Little House says:

    These are very good points. We haven’t backed up our data to a cloud system, though it would probably be a good idea. About two years ago, our shared drive melted and we lost a ton of data. We had been backing up to an external drive, but hadn’t done any backups in over a month and lost a month’s worth of data. It was really bad news. If we had backed up to a cloud regularly, we could have avoided this issue. Thanks for sharing the password creator link. I need to get better at this!

    • Kevin says:

      Oh, geez… nothing like that has happened to me recently, but I have lost lots of stuff from computer crashes and things like that from back in the day! Definitely look into the cloud services, most places will give you 2GB for free.

  9. Geoff says:

    Kevin, I just started using Mozy and I absolutely love it. I used to procrastinate doing manual back-ups to DVD’s and was at a contant risk of not being up to date should the worst happen. Now I don’t even think about it because it’s automatic.

    I looked at a lot of backup providers and one of the main reasons I chose Mozy was because they can perform backups on open files. This is important to me because I run my life out of Outlook which is always open and really the most critical thing I need backed up.

    • Kevin says:

      ” I used to procrastinate doing manual back-ups to DVD’s ” — that was me, too! I wonder how they do backups of open files. In my case the most important feature is incremental backups, because I work with HUGE TrueCrypt files, and I don’t want to reupload gigs of data every time a few bytes change. This was one of Wuala’s biggest weaknesses, but has recently been fixed.

  10. I don’t trust the cloud just yet. But, I do need to find a better solution. Right now I back up weekly (manually), first to my laptop, then to a thumb drive and also to a desktop.

    With our finances, I back up to a disc every time I update (once a month) and then do a yearly backup of everything and store it off in the safety deposit box.

    I’m needing to buy an external drive for sure.

    • Kevin says:

      You don’t trust it with the security of your data? Or that your backups will be available when you need them?

      At least you have some backups, and some in a physically separate location which is good. If you don’t trust the security of the could (you’re not alone — neither do I), then you can use Truecrypt or 7-Zip. Truecrypt is a pretty arcane piece of software, but 7-Zip is much simpler — select the files, right click, create new 7-Zip archive, and from there you can set a password. If you use less than 2GB, most cloud providers are also free.

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  16. Great post Kevin! I’ve been using iDrive for more than 3 years now. Backing up your data is especially important for people running a home-based business.

    • Kevin says:

      Thanks! Agreed this is especially helpful if you have a home-based business. The added convenience and security is really helpful.

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  18. Richard Wrinkles says:

    Just keep this in mind; do not trust any cloud service to protect your privacy. They are required by law to hand over info on any account on their service, if any govt agent/agency requests for it.

    • Kevin says:

      Good point, Richard. I use TrueCrypt to encrypt sensitive data, which also helps to protect your account against hackers and data thieves.

  19. Patrina Dishner says:

    Wow that is ridiculously cheap…might have to look into this plan.

  20. I wonder if it’s like MSFT’s skydrive and restricts file size to a 100MB?