Alok Menghrajani

Security engineer at Square. Previously co-author of Hacklang and pushed for adoption of 100% https at Facebook.

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I use the following setup to avoid losing my digital data. I have been doing this for almost 10 years and it seems to be simple and reliable.

An increasing amount of our life is digital: our photos/videos/music, our emails, school or personal projects, scans/pdf copies of our important documents (passports, certificates, tax returns, etc.) and more.

This information tends to be spread across many devices (smartphone, tablet, laptop) and also across various cloud services (photos on Facebook, files on Google Docs and Dropbox, numerous projects on github.com, etc.). In total, I have about 100 GB of data.

Why backup?

The data on my phone and laptop is always a small accident away from being permanently lost: drop a phone on the ground and it might crack. Spill some coffee or water on a laptop and it might not survive. In addition, hard drives are prone to mechanical/random failures.

You may lose your electronic devices at any given time.

Other forms of accidental damage include forgetting your device somewhere, a software bug erasing all your data, natural disasters such as flood or fire.

In addition to accidental damage, malicious people might destroy your data: thieves stealing your belongings, malware/ransomware erasing your data, etc.

Having all my data in a single place and knowing it’s backed up gives me peace of mind. I can quickly dig up an old photo or other file when needed.

Backup stored in bank safe deposit box

One way to protect against data loss is to always keep two or more copies of your data, in two or more different locations. I also like to backup the data I store on online services, just to have everything in one place.

To achieve this, I purchased two external 1TB usb drives. I also signed up for a safe deposit box at my bank’s local branch, where I keep one of the two external drives.

When I’m home, I plug my external drive into my laptop and use Time Machine to continuously backup my data. The external drive not only contains all my data, but also a copy of all my applications, settings, etc.

Every 6 months, I sync my phone (using iTunes), download my Facebook data (there’s an export feature), download my Google docs (there’s also an export feature for that), etc. I wait for Time Machine to replicate the data and then take the external drive to the bank and swap it out with the one in the safe deposit box.

The total cost of my setup is:

  • 2 x $50 for the two drives (one time cost)
  • $35 per year to rent the safe deposit box
  • 2 x 30min per year to access the safe deposit box

If you want to go cheaper, you can store your drive at your workplace or a friend/relative’s home. As long as you encrypt the backup (Time Machine supports password protecting the drive), you can do without a physical safe.

You may also consider storing your usb drive in a tamper evident bag. Each bag costs about $0.25 and makes it harder for someone to access the content of your backup without leaving trace.

Using a NAS or home server

At some point, I "improved" my setup and added a home server (a Mac Mini). The main advantage of having a server is that I don’t have to plug an external drive into my laptop. My laptop is configured to continuously sync with the Mac Mini.

If you want to go low cost, you can setup a Linux mini computer or use a Raspberry Pi as the server.

Backup using the cloud

Instead of using external hard drives, you can backup your files to Dropbox, Google Drive or one of many other cloud storage services. If you go this route, you should encrypt your data!

You might also want to look into specialized backup services, such as Tarsnap, Backbaze, Crashplan, Amazon Galcier, etc.

The advantage of having your backups in the cloud is that you can access your files from anywhere.

The disadvantage is that you risk having unauthorized people access your data (if you don't encrypt it). It can be more expensive if you have a lot of data.