Backup software

Although security is about protecting your stuff, especially what’s important to you, a lot of it comes down to trade-offs. Every single thing you do to improve your security adds hassle and has a cost—sometimes money, sometimes time, sometimes mental energy. After all, there’s no use wearing a bulletproof vest most of the time (see How can I be hacked?).

One thing that’s almost certain—automatic backup software is worth your money and time:

Data loss ain’t sexy, and sex sells

We often get stuck on shiny cybersecurity threats, like viruses or fraud, and it’s easy to overlook problems that are less newsworthy.

That is the case with backups.

In What is security?, we discussed that security means protecting three things—confidentiality, integrity, and availability. Beyond that, in How can I be hacked?, we note that this protection includes accidents and errors, not just targeted attacks.

This is why automatic backups are such a great way to protect your data’s security. Not only do good backup tools safeguard your data’s availability against deliberate attacks (like ransomware), they also protect your data from common errors and accidents.

And data loss is common.

Data loss is kind of a big deal

For perspective, in 2022 the payment company ACI found that 33% of Americans have been defrauded online in the past 4 years⁠(Barthe & Murrant, 2022).

At the same time:

Using napkin math, that’s also about 30%: data loss or theft is a threat on the same scale as fraud. There are real reasons to backup your data.

And since automatic backup software is cheap and easy to set up (the plans I use cost ~$100/yr), it’s easy to start doing that today.

The stuff backups need

Doing backups “right” is not so easy—or at least it might seem that way.

You can find entire communities on the Internet debating the best ways to back things up⁠(Reddit - DataHoarder Wiki - Software, n.d.; How Often Should Database Backups Be Tested? - Quora, n.d.), and they offer many guidelines, tips, and suggestions (like the 3-2-1 backup strategy⁠(Harnedy, 2016)⁠ or the mantra “test your backups!”). You can learn a lot from these hobbyists and experts (and I have).

But I recommend automatic backup software for 1 simple reason: it is likely you will lose your data, from theft, accident, or device failure—so you should make sure that your important memories and documents are backed up elsewhere.

To do that, I recommend just a few things when choosing how to backup your stuff:

You should feel free to add your own requirements to this list. You know what’s important to you. But hopefully this is a good start:

You know what’s worse than having “wrong”, incomplete backups? Having no backups at all!

3 general types of backup tools

There are plenty of easy ways to start.

Again, choose the type of tool that works for you. Hopefully any of these tools will help you feel safer (against real threats!) immediately.

A specific recommendation

If you want a specific recommendation, the most obvious way to get all of these benefits is with a “Cloud” or “Drive” tool.

Tools like Google Drive, Apple’s iCloud Drive, and Microsoft OneDrive, mentioned above: they keep your data online, automatically, and keep version histories and deleted files. Furthermore, all of these tools can automatically integrate with your existing files and folders (if you choose), so you may not have to change how you use your computer at all. Once you’ve set up the tool, you can know your data is backed up.

Plus, they can sync your data across devices, like your phone and computer, and they also let you access your files online, from anywhere, if you log in.

I think tools like Google Drive, Apple’s iCloud Drive, and Microsoft OneDrive are good starts if you don’t know where to begin. They also all have free tiers, so you can try them out to see what you like.

These rewards have risks

Backing up your data is a choice, and it’s an intensely personal decision. It also carries risks. For example:

This are just a few examples—backing up your data is a spectrum of tradeoffs. Every new place you keep your data is a potential place that can be hacked or exploited.

This is true across the field of security—the decisions you make often require trading one risk (for example, losing all your data, with no backup) for another (like letting a very skilled hacker read your data, with online backups). We touch on these tradeoffs in our guide to choosing better passwords: choosing more-random passwords can protect you against some threats, but it probably adds unneccessary hassle to your life.

Some people prefer encrypted backups—backups that you protect with your own password and upload in a way that even the cloud providers can’t read—but these backups are useless if you forget that password. It’s a balance, and you must decide what’s most important to you.

I personally think simple cloud backups are a safe choice for most people, but you should decide that for yourself.

Conclusion: backups are pretty neat

And so it’s worth thinking back to the beginning—why we even discuss backups in the first place.

Data loss is a real cybersecurity threat, and it happens frequently enough to be worth protecting against. Losing your phone, having your laptop stolen, watching your desktop hard drive break—they’re all likely to happen, on a comparable scale to credit card fraud. If you’re worried about credit card skimmers, it’s worth thinking about data loss.

Cloud backup tools make it easy and automatic to backup your important data—and access it anywhere. They have their risks and tradeoffs, but I think they’re a good bargain for most people.

But even if you’re not convinced, if you care about your data at all I urge you: get a hard drive, get a USB stick, get something. Make a backup of your memories—you’ll cry tears of joy when you need it.