Home Computer Backup Can Be Fun!
Updated: Apr 27, 2021
Yeah... not really.... and I know what you're thinking... I don't have time for backup... plus, I got my stuff in the Cloud son !!! Well, I agree that spending time on backup is lame, but if you ever lose your files, you'll be VERY happy for the time spent. Being in IT, I've known those that have lost all their files due to house fires, malware, or other risks. So, for this post, I'll bloviate on data / file backup for your PC, including:
Cloud Drives are groovy... but not all that and a bag of chips!
Viruses... Ransomware... Malware... oh my!
Logical issues... WTF are logical issues!
Don't support punk @ss pimply-faced teenage script kiddies!
Making USB drives your friend is not really that weird!
Love your AES 256 FIPS 140-2 L3 Drive... Really!
Safe deposit boxes are not just for European Gangsters!
Don't be lazy!
Make sure you don't get pwned by a recycler / donation station!
Watch for moisture, wipe often, and keep it clean!
Gold Star for reading my previous posts!
To start with, Cloud drives are cool, and can be a great starting part for your overall plan. You ask, why wouldn't a Cloud drive be a great total solution? Well, while such drives can protect your data in the event of device failure, they may not safeguard your data against other events, like viruses, hijacking, ransomware (collectively malware), or even "logical" data issues. Don't worry, I'll elaborate on both shortly. One example of a Cloud drive is Microsoft's OneDrive, which is often obtained as part of the Microsoft 365 service / subscription. As noted before, I don't get paid by products I mention, and mentioning doesn't indicate I'm recommending them, but I like using real world examples, and OneDrive is a market leader, especially being affordable and cross-platform (Windows / Mac). There are a ton of Cloud drives out there like DropBox, Box, Google Drive, iCloud Drive, etc..
Many Cloud drives (like OneDrive) provide three key features; 1] local file access - allowing file interaction just like any other file on your PC's local drive, 2] Cloud access - for mobile and/or browser access, and 3] versioning - for restoring a previous iteration [version] of the file. However, because of item #1 (local file access), if you get hit with something like ransomware, it's possible the ransomware would also corrupt your (linked) Cloud drive files... oops!. We'll chat about secondary protection options, but while Cloud drives are a modern convenience, you should always be careful and diligent with your implementation and use. Like anything else Internet-related, benefits come with risks, so a few tips; a] ensure all your Cloud accounts are protected with a very strong and highly unique passphrase (note not password but passphrase), b] use multi-factor authentication to prevent unauthorized access, and c] consider using high security "vaults" offered by most providers (like OneDrive has). The Internet is too dangerous a place to not employ every security measure at your disposal, so proceed with caution and embrace a bit of paranoia... just to keep you sharp.
Still wondering about those "logical" data issues and ransomware I noted? Well, first let's chat logical. Being in IT, I often have five or more layers of redundancies built into backup systems. One level is to help in the event data becomes corrupted and the possibility it could take weeks or even months to discover such. Logical issues may not be directly related to the equipment / device itself, just bad ones & zeroes resulting from software / programming issues, hence being a "logical" issue. One level of protection is to have a history / archive of your files. Often in business, the history is perpetual, so I can go back to any point in time, generally within a week or so, and recover the data. For you, say a bug compromised your photos, but you didn't know for a month. If you had a copy of those photos on a disconnected drive (i.e. removable USB drive that's not connected) from before they were corrupted, you could simply restore those copies. You might lose everything between that date and the date you discovered it, but at least you wouldn't loose everything. I've seen instances where files have been corrupted on both Windows and Mac, but not discovered for weeks or months.
So, for malware... which does happen frequently. The absolute worst is having some punk @ss pimply-faced teenage wannabe hacker script-kiddie from some European country you can't pronounce decide to own your computer by dumping some ransomware kit and requiring you to pay in bitcoin. If these clowns would only apply the energy to something productive... but that's unlikely to happen. Anyways, I digress... but unfortunately most of the time, it's self-initiated from you visiting a compromised website or opening an e-mail with an infected attachment. Anyways, like above, if you have copies on a disconnected USB drive, at least you'd have everything up to that point. As many have found out, that even after paying the ransom, most users still don't get their files unlocked / returned, and when they do, often times the unlocked files are time bombs waiting to explode with even more infestations and malware.
Ok, enough of what could happen... so, what's an easy way to mitigate potential issues? As eluded to... often what I embrace is simply to use some off-the-shelf portable external USB drives for secondary protection to periodically make a (backup) copy of files. The exact type of drive will be dictated by how much data you have, but most users can utilized 1-2 TB SSD USB drives and store multiple copies. Even if you have 250GB worth of data, a 2TB drive would allow for up to six copies per drive. So, if you have two drives, and backup once a month, that gives you a year of protection. I simply plug in a drive, add a folder named with today's date, purge an old folder (if space is needed), then simply drag-and-drop any files that need saving. You can find tons of great secure drives from vendors such as Kingston/IronKey, Apricorn, iStorage, Lacie, WD/Sandisk, and others.
The critical item to respect with external drives is to ensure it's from a quality reputable brand and has solid encryption, at least AES 256 (preferably adhering to and noting FIPS 140-2 Level 3+ compliance), and allows for strong / complex keys (i.e. passphrase) and tamper-proofing to mitigate brute-force attacks. Most good tamper-proof systems will wipe the drive if an incorrect key (password / passphrase) is entered incorrectly a certain amount of times. You don't want your files compromised if the drive is lost or stolen, especially if you store them offsite and out of your direct control, or while in transit. Another critical thing is where to keep the drive(s). If you can keep it offsite with a trusted family member or safe deposit box, that's probably best scenario in providing further (premises) protection. A good scenario could include at least two drives, then after making a backup, storing it offsite while grabbing the previous drive and bringing it back ready for the next backup... that way you'd always have one drive safely offsite. If a secondary location is not in the cards, please just don't keep it next to your PC, instead put it in your home safe (hopefully fire & water proof) in a different room or opposite end of house.
I know what you're thinking... this sounds way too much like work... but not really... just a bit of time each month or so, along with a small investment in drives. Don't be lazy, just buy two quality encrypted drives, set a very strong passphrase, drag data to save monthly (or whatever / whenever needed), store the drive, grab old drive, then rinse & repeat. You could do it quarterly, monthly, weekly, daily or whatever suits your needs. For me, my photos and data don't change too much over a month, so I just do monthly. And, if you want longer retention, like years, simply buy bigger drives. You may have to move from SSD to HDD (i.e. rotational - mechanical) drives, but with such, you can get 30TB+ worth of portable storage. If you have 250GB worth of data, that'd give you a few years of coverage.
While we're here chatting about drives, remember that technology changes rapidly... luckily USB has good backwards compatibility, and such is expected to continue. However, you'll likely need to replace the drives every +/- five years to ensure you can still access data. Oh, never just recycle your old drives without a good electronic wipe or digital destruction. If the drive doesn't come with a drive wipe utility, sometimes simply purging all the data and assigning a different random encryption key to the blank drive, is a reasonable method to prevent malicious access. I've heard way too many anecdotal stories of unscrupulous recyclers and donation entities gaining valuable personal data from donated or recycled drives, where previous users haven't been diligent at wiping them. Additionally, you can have the drive physically destroyed too. Lastly, as with storing paperwork, take notice of cleanliness and environmental conditions. I always store my drives with packets of desiccant (silica gel) to avoid moisture degradation... especially when storing in a fire & water resistant safe which often build up and hold moisture. You can get various types of silic gel / desiccant "dry packs" from Amazon... so, don't be cheap and spend the five bucks to safeguard your drive integrity.
Almost done... Thank the Lords of Kobol... but some final considerations first; Cloud drives can use lots of Internet bandwidth, so be sure you understand related implications and how it'll affect both transfer speed and your bill at the end of the month. I've touched on this in a previous article. Also, most PC's have some sort of "backup" program installed, like Time Machine on Mac, Backup on Windows, or other apps you can download. These can be convenient for scheduling if you have large amounts of data. Big "but" here... personally, I try to avoid most "backup" apps as you're generally required to utilize the same app to "restore" your files. Whereas, if you do a simple copy (i.e. drag-and-drop), depending on the file system, you can generally plug the drive into most other compatible devices and have immediate access to your files. Again, it depends on your sitchy, but yeah, if you have like 25TB of data, you might need a backup program... or simply go on a data diet.
Finally, you'll probably notice I didn't touch on Cloud Backup Providers like Carbonite, iDrive, etc.. Those and others can be great options, and I commonly use them in business, but for home / personal use, I find most humans already have a Microsoft 365 or Google subscription which includes Cloud drive space. So, paying for a backup program feels a bit redundant. With that noted, if you can afford it, options like Carbonite et al can be a good choice... but you still should include external (USB drive) backups... like we chatted about earlier. If you're "IT inclined" you may wonder why I didn't mention disk cloning. Well, that's on purpose... cloning feel's so yesterday and requires more time and specialized knowledge / equipment. I've been in IT a long time and can't recall last time I used cloning (outside of VM VHD)... probably around 2005... prehistoric times... so just Wiki it if you need more deets.
Hope you found this informative... now... go back your sh!t up !!! 😄
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DISCLAIMER: I'm just a guy who's been around tech and knows some stuff. I always remind others that what I say is purely FWIW, IMO, FFT, FYI, and many other acronyms... so while I strive to convey quality deets... you get no promises on accuracy or validity. I'm sure a lawyer would say; information not guaranteed, actual results may vary, and use at your own risk.