Why you should back up your data now

Once it’s gone, it’s lost forever. Here’s how to keep it.


We’ve all had that gut-wrenching ‘Oh no!’ moment when we lose a cellphone, drop a laptop or get hit by a computer virus.

And while our first instinct is to fret over the loss of the expensive electronics we have to trash, we should be more worried about something harder to replace—personal and professional data.


“Our data is the single most important thing we have in our modern electronic world,” said Paul Lu, a professor of computing science at the University of Alberta. “Recreating it can range from impossible to being way more expensive than a laptop. People don’t realize data is worth more than the electronics.”

It’s a good idea, he added, to heed the advice offered for World Backup Day on March 31, where everyone is urged to take the time to copy their most precious data—everything from your baby photos to old university thesis papers—to second and even third sources, to protect them from being lost forever.

According to Backup Day statistics, 30 per cent of people have never duplicated their data, even though 113 cellphones are lost or stolen every minute and one in 10 computers is infected with a virus each month.

Taking time to back up data may seem like a nuisance, but Lu likens it to buying life insurance: “I know I should, but what are the odds of anything happening? You don’t appreciate it until you have to claim it. It's the same with your data.”

Backing your data up once a week “is a huge improvement over what most people are doing now. You’re probably doing better than 90 per cent of the world,” said Lu, who backs up his own data at least once a day between computers.

Besides loss or theft of phones and laptops, disasters such as flooded basements or fires can also claim data that are often stored in a home office, Lu noted.

Holding data for ransom

One of the most worrisome future trends, he believes, is ransomware—computer software that encrypts and holds computer data hostage until the owner pays a ransom. It’s a problem that has so far dogged large institutions and businesses, but Lu believes individuals could also be targeted at some point.

“It’s highly profitable because ransomers make their money through volume. Every victim can mean, say, $100 or more, because they’re going to pay to get those family photos back, and individuals don’t tend to call police the way an institution would, so the risk of being caught is low. Sadly, I believe it will happen, if it hasn't happened already.”

Out-of-date technology can also pose a passive but real threat if a company goes out of business or your computer system becomes obsolete over time, Lu added. “It can sneak up on you. Suddenly it’s 15 years later and you can’t read the data off your old drive.”

What if the cloud goes down?

Cloud storage—storing data on remote servers accessed online—is popular, convenient and relatively safe, Lu said. But on occasion, users run the risk of having the cloud go down (as it did with Amazon in February), with possibly no way to retrieve their data.

Lu suggests copying your data out of the cloud at least every six months to a year, using a device like a flash drive or external hard drive that can easily be attached to a computer. He personally backs up to an external hard drive once a month. And whatever device you use, it’s a good idea to have two, he suggested—one at work and one at home.

In certain cases, it even makes sense to make hard copies for irreplaceable items like family photos or other documents.

“If you have data you care about, print it out on paper, bind it and put it somewhere safe. Paper will last decades and it can be scanned.”

And for sensitive data like financial information, social insurance numbers and other personal information that you’ve stored online and need to share for business purposes, be sure to encrypt it to keep it safe from the prying eyes of scanners, such as email companies that routinely scan any data they get to try to sell you things through targeted advertisements.

“Encryption is the best way we have right now of keeping it secure.”