Disaster-proofing your digital life

My CBC Radio tech column this week is all about disaster-proofing your digital life. There’s a copy up at, and one below, for posterity.


Over the past week, Canadians watched as thousands were evacuated from their homes during floods in Manitoba and wildfires in Slave Lake, Alta. On Monday, I listened to one Manitoba man on The Current explain how he spent a day and a half packing up his belongings before leaving his home, uncertain what he’d return to.

And like a lot of Canadians, I quietly wondered, “What would I do? What if I had to get out of my home in a hurry?”

My mind immediately turned to a Saturday morning last April, when my next-door neighbour’s apartment caught fire.

As smoke seeped into our hallway, and firefighters banged on our front door, my immediate concern was life and limb — specifically, the lives and limbs of me, my wife and my sister, who was visiting from out of town.

But after the personal safety of my family, my most pressing concern was the safety of my data — the thousands of photos, videos, documents and music files I have stored across a handful of hard drives.

A few years earlier, my priorities might have been different. I might have grabbed a photo album or a family heirloom on my way out the door.

But today, some of my most precious possessions are digital artifacts: wedding photos, holiday videos, music I’ve recorded with friends. This stuff can’t be easily replaced. But in a situation where the fire department advises: “Get out fast. Don’t try to take possessions or pets,” the last thing you should do is start backing up your desktop.

Luckily, no one was hurt in my neighbour’s apartment fire, and thankfully, my digital memories suffered no damage. But that close call lit a fire under my rear end to start disaster-proofing my digital life.

Off-site backups

The risk here isn’t just fires or floods. There are lots of ways to lose the things you care about. A few weeks ago, a friend’s laptop was burgled from her office. A few years ago, I knew a couple whose hard drive failed just a few months after their twin boys were born. They lost everything. Photos from the hospital, video of the boys meeting their grandparents for the first time — all gone.

Regardless of your computer’s make, mode or operating system, there are a few fundamentals to a successful backup plan. These are what writer Merlin Mann calls The Holy Trinity of backup. He says backups need to be automatic, redundant and off-site.

I’d argue that the off-site part is particularly important, because a backup hard drive sitting next to your main hard drive isn’t much good if a burglar steals both or you come home from vacation to discover both drives have gone up in flames.

Luckily, there are several good ways to get your backups off-site. There are several cloud-based backup services, including Mozy and Carbonite. Both are paid subscription services that allow you to schedule automatic, encrypted backups to off-site servers.

Though I’ve tried both Mozy and Carbonite, my favourite internet-based backup service is CrashPlan (Mac/Windows/Linux), which comes with a twist. In addition to its paid, cloud-backup service, CrashPlan offers a free option that lets you back up files to a friend’s computer. So if you have a trusted friend with extra hard drive space, it’s simple to set up reciprocal, free backups.

If you’re not keen on the cloud (or your internet connection isn’t up to transferring large amounts of data on a regular basis), you can still keep a backup copy of your important digital memories off-site.

2 copies of everything

Simply make two copies of everything you don’t want to lose (on external hard drives, USB keys, DVDs, etc.). Keep one on-site, and leave another with a friend, family member or in your safety deposit box. Rotate them regularly and update the backups frequently.

Personally, I use a combination of these techniques. Each night, my computer backs itself up to a friend’s computer across town. I also have a pair of external hard drives in a backup rotation.

I keep one at home, and one at work. Every few weeks, I swap them out. Overkill? Perhaps. But I have thousands of photos and videos, and documents that just can’t be replaced.

A small amount of backup obsession is worth knowing that my apartment could burn down tomorrow and all my data would be safe.

So then, if the things you care about aren’t backed up automatically, redundantly and off-site, here’s a piece of homework.

Identify the digital memories that you would really, really hate to lose. The baby pictures, the wedding videos, the family tree. Then, get those files somewhere safe. Burn those photos to a DVD and send it to your relatives for safekeeping. Stick your most important documents on a USB key and drop it in your safety deposit box at the bank.

Then, start working on a full, proper backup plan to disaster-proof your digital life. Because you really never know, and a little work now can save a huge amount of heartache later.