Protecting personal data

February 18, 2010 – 11:36 am

This blog primarily focuses on protecting corporate data, but I recently received a call from my father that reminded me of the criticality of protecting personal data. My father called expressing frustration that his laptop hard drive had failed and corrupted his data. Fortunately, he had backup copies of his most critical files on a USB stick; however, his email history and address book were not stored on the external device and were lost. I mention this story to remind you of the importance of personal data protection. What are you doing to backup your data?

There are many different approaches to protecting personal data. The two key concerns to consider are:

  1. What happens if I lose the hard drive where my data is stored or experience a software problem such as a virus?
  2. What happens if I suffer a more extreme data loss such as my house burning down?

Each question is critical, and the answer will vary depending on the data. For example, digital pictures of your family might have a different priority than your MP3 library. The former is irreplaceable and the latter is not. These priorities will impact the chosen data protection medium and methodology.

Protecting from loss of a hard drive or a software problem:

The most basic method to protect from hard drive failure is RAID. RAID essentially writes your data across multiple hard drives and in most instances will protect you from a loss of a single drive. Of course, this only protects you from a hardware problem. If you get a virus that erases your data, RAID will not help and will provide an efficient way for the virus to erase multiple drives simultaneously!

Another option is an external USB drive. External USB storage provides a cost effective target that you can copy data to. It often makes sense to unplug the USB drive when finished to provide some protection from the virus problem mentioned above. However, remember that someone or some piece of software must run a process to copy data to the drive; if the process runs inconsistently or unreliably, your data will be at risk.

Protecting from extreme data loss:

This is the worst kind of disaster with much larger implications than data loss. However, it is important to design a strategy that enables restoration of data in this scenario. The best solution to this problem is to maintain a complete copy of your data at an offsite location. The simplest and easiest method is to use a backup service like Crashplan or Mozy. These companies sell a data protection service that includes software that encrypts your data and sends it over the Internet to their location. The process of encrypting, compressing and sending data is automated by the software agents provided by the vendors making these solutions entirely automated. The challenge is that it can take days or even weeks to initially send your data over your Internet connection and a complete recovery will take the same amount of time. Crashplan offers an added cost solution (~$130) where they will send you a USB drive which would help speed recovery in cases of total loss.

In summary, there are multiple different ways to protect from data loss. RAID and local USB drives provide reasonable solutions to hardware failure, but limited or no protection for OS or software failures. Remote services provide excellent disaster protection with the downside of a long initial backup and long complete recovery. There is no reason that you cannot use multiple approaches simultaneously. For example, I store my data on a RAID protected device and keep a local copy on a USB drive. I also use Crashplan to backup the data nightly and for extra redundancy, I post my images to a dedicated image hosting service. My approach may be overkill for many, but every computer user must think about how they are protecting their data.

 

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