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:
- It protects you against many attacks—and, more importantly, against common accidents.
- It’s easy to set up.
- It’s cheap.
- It often gives you other benefits—like letting you access your data from your phone or your friend’s computer.
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:
- According to the FCC, about 10% of Americans lose their phone (or have it stolen) each year(Technological Advisory Council (TAC) Mobile Device Theft Prevention (MDTP) Working Group, 2018).
- According to Backblaze, measuring hundreds of thousands of hard drives, about 10% of hard drives (and 3.6% of SSDs) will fail within their first 4 years of use(Klein, 2021).
- According to 2010 data from Intel, 7% of business laptops were stolen before the end of their useful lifespan(“Laptop Theft,” 2020).
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:
Make sure you’re protecting the stuff you care about—your photos, your tax receipts, your emails from Grandma. If you care about other stuff, protect that too, but make sure your backups contain your irreplacable stuff.
Design your backups to survive likely loss—what losses do you anticipate? If you live in a place that gets hurricanes, or if you want your family photos to survive a fire, you probably want to backup online (or to someone else’s house).
Design your backups to survive likely accident—have you ever accidentally deleted an important document or overwritten a photo you care about? You probably want a tool that saves multiple old versions of your work (and keeps recently-deleted files for a bit).
Make it easy—why add hassle to your life when backups could be automatic and painless?
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.
You can use “backup everything” tools that backup your entire computer at a regular rate. These include online services, like Carbonite or Backblaze, and offline tools, like Time Machine or the software that sometimes comes with external hard drives.
If you have multiple devices, you might also like “Cloud” or “Drive” tools that keep your files—like your Documents folder and photo libraries—in the cloud, for easy access from any of your devices. These include services like Google Drive, Apple’s iCloud Drive, Dropbox, and Microsoft OneDrive.
You may also prefer more “custom” tools that let you customize what and when you backup, how and where that data is stored, and how it’s managed. These are tools like Arq—or even nerdier tools like rsync or borg.
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:
- If you choose to backup your data online (like I recommend), the cloud provider you choose will have your files (unless you encrypt them)—are you worried that the provider may be hacked? Are you worried that the provider might read your stuff? Their user agreements often make it clear they will not read your data, but are you worried they might break the law? If you’re doing illegal things, they may be legally required to share your files with law enforcement.
- If your backup software keeps versions of your work and deleted files, you’ll need to take more steps to permanently and completely delete a file or delete information. Are you worried you might accidentally leak something personal?
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.