Digital Life Backup: How To Organize, Secure, And Sync Your Data To Minimize The Risk Of Loss Or Theft

By   |  August 11, 2014

Whether you like it or not, everything is now officially digital. From submitting homework and listening to music, to watching television shows and even filing your #%@!&$* taxes – the internet is no longer a hangout for geeks, but rather a cornerstone of 21st century business, finance, learning, government, and beyond.

While most people these days understand the basic need to “back up” certain data such as photos or important documents, there are so many options and services that it’s sometimes hard to know where to begin. Moreover, it is quite often the “everyday” type of information that many users forget to back up – let alone, securely.

Cloud Storage: Avoiding Local Hard Drives

According to a 2012 market intelligence estimate, around 600-800 million users will have used some form of “cloud storage” service by the year 2014. If you don’t glean anything else from this article, at least remember this: DO NOT EVER RELY on your computer, smartphone, external hard drive, or any other physical device to retain your data. In this day and age, online cloud storage is an absolute must – and if you choose a cutting edge service, it will also sync all of your data between your various devices.

From precious memories like family photos, to sensitive financial documents, online cloud storage is by far the safest and most secure place to store your data (yes, even if you are worried about hackers). Not only is cloud storage redundant – meaning that its stored in multiple locations around the world – but it is also encrypted by default. In summary, no amount of hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, wars, or anything short of a global zombie apocalypse can take down your files stored “on the cloud.”

In general, you should avoid storing important data on your computer or devices, especially files that might contain things like your financial information. In the “old days” of using paper and file cabinets, information was easier to steal – but it was also less susceptible to things like identity theft or viruses. Consider only keeping temporary files on your device hard drive, such as movies, music, or eBooks. (By using a cutting edge cloud storage service such as Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive, you are able to edit and store any document or spreadsheet files directly online.)

Encryption: The Key To Your Digital Safety

If you do choose to store important data on your computer hard drive, keep in mind that hackers can easily steal your computer, throw in a copy of software like Ultimate Boot CD and view all the data on your computer without your password. This brings us to another critical point: if you must keep sensitive files on your computer, always make sure you encrypt your hard drive – or at least certain directories/partitions – using free utilities such as BitLocker for Windows 7/8, or FileVault for Mac OSX. (Note: the TrueCrypt project was formerly a popular cross-platform encryption tool, but has been abandoned after Microsoft ended support for Windows XP. It is no longer safe to use). For Linux users, there are various built-in encryption tools depending on your distro.

Encryption is even more important for mobile devices. For Android and iOS users, there is built in support for device encryption in the settings panel, which is usually as simple as setting up a PIN number – users can also quickly encrypt SD memory cards as well. There are a few options for Windows Phone users – however, BitLocker is not easily implemented and apparently Microsoft is working on improvements.

The Growing Importance Of Web Browsers

Only a few years ago, it was extremely difficult to keep track of your browsing history and data. These days, however, all major browsers – Chrome, Firefox, IE, Safari, and Opera – have built-in “sync” capabilities that allow you to keep track of not only your bookmarks and passwords, but also your recently open tabs. (If you are using iCloud “cloud storage” on Apple devices, your browser data can be integrated as well.) As more applications become web-based instead of client-based, the “browser” will have an evermore significant role to play in storing user data. It is important, therefore, that you stick with a popular browser – for example, if you prefer Gmail and Google Drive over other services, it may prove useful to stick with using the Chrome browser. In this way, you are able to use a single Google user account to manage and sync your data across multiple services and devices. (Note: CollegeTimes previously recommended using 3rd-party services such as Xmarks and LastPass to manage bookmarks and passwords. With growing privacy and encryption concerns, it is now more advisable to use services from a well-established, publicly-traded corporation such as Google, Microsoft, or Apple, etc.)

Password security reminder: If you are going to tell your browser to “remember passwords” then always make sure your device is locked with a password or PIN – otherwise any thief will be able to automatically login to your online accounts.

Syncing Email, Messages, And Contacts

The only thing to know about email apps: always use IMAP and not POP when syncing email, otherwise your conversations will be deleted from the server after they’ve been downloaded to your device, which is clearly not good for accessibility. In addition, never use your company, university, or similar email address for important accounts like your online bank or credit card. Even if you use a strong password or you have “life access” to that particular email ID, you simply can’t trust a small scale IT department to safeguard your email data. Every year, hackers breach multiple college and company servers and steal things like social security numbers, financial data, and more.

Syncing messages from mobile devices is a bit trickier. In short, stop using SMS and MMS to communicate with people, and only use text messages for important notices from your phone carrier or other business service. Instead, use of the many fantastic “chat” apps that now exist, such as WhatsApp, LINE, SnapChat, Kik, Viber, or Facebook Messenger. (While some of these still do NOT sync to a central server, they do all offer easy backup/export functions in order to save your chat history.)

Syncing contacts has also become much easier in the last few years. Previously, there were only a few janky services out there (i.e. Zyb a.k.a. Vodaphone 360, now defunct) that backed up your mobile contacts, but none of them really worked very well. Even now, its still relatively difficult to sync contacts across multiple devices and operating systems, because manufacturers don’t any any incentive to make it easy. Google Contacts is the easiest way to store contacts on Android devices, which also integrate with your Gmail account, and is accessible from your desktop computer. iCloud once again provides a slick contact-syncing feature for iPhone or iOS users. If you are using a more niche device such as Ubuntu Touch or Firefox OS, there are unfortunately no easy solutions for syncing contacts to the cloud, but there are a few 3rd-party contact management apps available (again) such as Full Contact. Whenever possible, don’t store your contacts or any other data on your smartphone’s SIM card, as this information is easily obtainable by anyone who steals your phone (or SIM), and it also frustrates your syncing efforts.

Update 8/11/2014: Article significantly re-written. Originally posted January 16, 2011.

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One Comment on “Digital Life Backup: How To Organize, Secure, And Sync Your Data To Minimize The Risk Of Loss Or Theft”  (RSS)

  1. I can’t ever, ever trust any online system’s encryption as I know gov can beat it out of them. Apple maybe not. However I must do my own encryption so only I can have it beat out of me.I do not trust cloud without my personal encryption first.
    Then I’m not your average MicroSnot user either. I do not and will not use MS. I am a contract Forensic and security consultant so I use the good stuff that I know about. I’ll never tell where my stuff is backed up. Be assured it is much much safer than any cloud system. It is however off site.

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