Hey Chief Heathen: Talk To Me About Backups

I’ve just had a pair of calls from a very, very frantic friend. In a hustle to get to the airport this afternoon, he managed to (a) not close his SUV’s tailgate; (b) only close it remotely once he got 50 yards down his street; and therefore (c) not notice his laptop bag had fallen out until he got to the airport. Upon return to his street, of course, an hour or more had passed and the bag was nowhere to be found. And his only backup drive was in the bag, too. And, to add insult to injury, he had no password on the computer, which contained lots of personal financial information in unencrypted files.

So he called me. He had no online or secondary backups. He hadn’t signed up for a stolen-laptop service. Did I know of any other way he could track or try to recover the computer? Sadly, no, I don’t. I gave him some pointers on identity theft prevention and protection, but that was about all I could do. His computer — with all his tax information, his business files, his contacts, his pictures, his digital life, was simply gone.

Now, if you don’t have an ugly bolus of nausea in the pit of your stomach right now, well, you’re made of stouter stuff than I am.

I’ve spoken before at some length about the supreme importance of backups, and how critical it is to have more than one kind, in more than one place. My friend had made a few seemingly small errors here that compounded into a seriously catastrophic situation. Read along now, and figure out where YOU would be if it were your laptop box and not his.

Device Security
First, security. Your laptop needs a password, for sure. Try to make it a good one. You don’t want just any nefarious goon to be able to sniff around on your laptop. You wouldn’t leave your home unlocked; you shouldn’t leave your data unlocked, either.

Data Security
Security extends beyond this, though. For truly sensitive information, like bank account access information, or passwords to credit card accounts, you should use some kind of encrypted storage. I like 1Password, which takes this idea to the next level. In addition to storing my passwords and account numbers in an encrypted file that locks after a few minutes of idleness, it includes the ability to create secure password AND a browser plug-in that makes remembering those secure passwords unnecessary. Just click the toolbar button, and 1Password notices I’m at Chase and fills in the right info. (Obviously, if the db hasn’t been used in a while, it’ll demand my passphrase — but it’s easier to remember one long, secure password than a whole bunch of them.) Cost: $49.99 for Mac or Windows license; $14.99 for companion iPhone/iPad app. Browser plug-ins are free.

Computer Recovery
There is also now a whole class of tools designed to make recovering a stolen laptop easier. The most famous is the Prey Project, discussed in some depth by Lifehacker here. Basically, you install it, and at an interval you choose it silently checks in with the Prey servers to see if the computer has been marked “stolen.” If that’s the case, it busily starts sending in all sorts of information about the theif’s activity — up to and including webcam pics. Prey is also free for up to 3 devices, which is kind of insane, but it’s well-reviewed and well-liked, and there are many examples of lost laptops being recovered using it, or using tools like it. I do not yet use any such tools, but I’m actively considering it. Cost: basic Prey is free for up to three devices; they have more elaborate plans and services, however.

My previous backup scheme, detailed in this space before, is unchanged. The driving principle is “measure your backups in spindles and time zones.”

Spindles are the “axles” inside hard drives. To measure by spindle is to count the ones involved in keeping your data safe. More spindles means more copies on more drives, which protects you from single points of physical failure.

Measuring by time zone means to keep physical separation between your data copies — keep some local, within easy reach, but keep some far away in the event of a local cataclysm. (And for God’s sake don’t put your only backup in your laptop bag.)

To recap:

  • Apple’s Time Machine runs all day every day. This is powerful, because of instead of just “big dumb copies” it keeps up with file versions. I used to just make a copy of my hard drive periodically, but that’s not enough, because if a region of your drive starts to go it’ll destroy files well before the problem is obvious. By dutifully copying my drive to my backup drive every week, I just spread the corruption to the backup drive, too, and in so doing lost a whole bunch of data — including about a year’s worth of pictures. Time Machine protects you from a drive or computer failure, but it also protects you from more subtle failures like the one I experienced. Best of all: it’s a set-it-and-forget-it kind of thing. As long as the backup drive is accessible, Time Machine will work with no intervention from you. (I still don’t know a good Windows option here.) Cost: Free with Macs.

  • I keep all my active files in Dropbox, which sucks copies into my folder there more or less instantly. Dropbox is really meant for synchronization between multiple computers (say, your work PC and your home PC), but the basic mechanics of the tool mean it’s a great extra backup step, too. Fun fact: about 18 months ago, my laptop went dark all of a sudden, in the middle of the day. No power, no nothing. I made an Apple Store appointment and then just powered on my backup computer, and the file I was working on was already there, thanks to Dropbox. Can’t beat that. Cost: Free for up to 2GB; I pay $9.99 a month for 50GB.

  • Periodically — before any major change to my laptop, or before any long trip — I make a perfect clone of my laptop’s hard drive using SuperDuper. Despite the trouble I mentioned before, keeping a clone around of your hard drive is a good idea — especially if you travel. Imagine how much less freaked out my friend would have been if, inside on his desk, a perfect copy of his data was safe and sound? In the ideal case, you keep TWO such copies and rotate them between two different locations. For example, during Hurricane Ike, one of my cloned drives was in Erin’s office on the 43rd floor of a building downtown and presumably therefore flood-safe. Cost: $27.95.

  • The final step for me is Crashplan, but competitors Mozy and Carbonite are also well regarded. (And Mozy is probably better for less-sophisticated users.) These are online, so-called “cloud” backup tools. You configure the client to protect certain folders or groups of folders, and the data is slowly and securely uploaded to the service. Once the initial backup is complete, only changes go up the wire. This type of tool is of HUGE value for three reasons: First, it happens automatically. Second, by definition the backups these tools perform are offsite, far away — your house could burn down, and you’d still have whatever data you stored there. Third, because these tools store file histories, you get protection from the “creeping corruption” problem that stung me years ago. I keep about 140GB of data backed up with CrashPlan, including over 100GB worth of photos. (While I just waited for the first backup to be done (it took a couple months), most of these services will allow you to seed your backup by sending in a portable hard drive.) Cost: Varies by service, and usually paid by the gigabyte. MozyHome is $4.99 for up to 50GB, e.g.

This Sounds Complicated!
It’s really not. If you know me well enough to have my phone number, you also know that I’ll help you with this. Don’t put it off. Do it today, or at least this weekend. Your data is important.

Now, I do have a little bit of extra news. I mentioned before that my friend had called twice. I got the disaster rundown in the first call, but an hour or two later he called back. It seems his neighbor had seen what happened, and collected the bag for him. Bullet dodged, of course, but you can be sure my pal is busily acquainting himself with the tools and services listed in this post. I think I’ll send him a link to it, just in case. For reference.

As for you, dear Heathen public, don’t count on having such a kind neighbor or such extraordinary luck. Protect yourself.

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