Despite your best efforts, you may still find your computer filled to the brim with malware. I started off this month by talking about what to do if your identity were to be stolen. This will be less about how to recover from specific threats and more about general practices that can help protect you recovery from a variety of attacks.
Key to this is backups. If your personal data gets encrypted by ransomware, you can restore it from backups. If your computer is completely saturated with pop-ups and software you didn’t mean to install, backups make it easier to just wipe the slate clean and start over from scratch – either by reinstalling the operating system or just buying a new system. Stolen laptop? Hard drive crash? Or just had an unlucky day?
Backups. Backups backups backups. AKA your all-purpose contingency plan.
There are lots of online backup services but Wirecutter does a good job of breaking down the various options and giving you some strong recommendations. As of the time of this writing, CrashPlan remains the one to beat (full disclosure: I use CrashPlan). Also worth considering: BackBlaze, SOS Online Backup and Carbonite.
Why these four? Because for a fixed price, they can give you unlimited storage. That means you don’t need to worry about how frequently you make backups, or how long you keep them around. These services work pretty much the same way: after an initial backup process (which, depending on how much data you have, may take a loooooong time), they will then periodically go through and back up only the data that’s changed since the last backup. This makes subsequent backups faster and more efficient.
Now backups are a good place to start but as usual, we can do better.
Photos and Videos
For a lot of us, photos and videos represent the bulk of our irreplaceable personal data and there’s a lot of it. Backing that up is fine and all, but if you want to look at old photos, you’d need to find it and restore it and that can be a cumbersome process. Instead, you can upload it to a dedicated online photo service. Two examples that I can recommend from personal experience are Amazon Prime Photos and Google Photos.
Amazon Prime Photos is free if you are an Amazon Prime subscriber (note to students: did you know you can get a discount for Amazon Prime?) and allows for unlimited photo uploads – including RAW photos, for those of you who are into that sort of thing (I am). Google Photos will let you store unlimited photos AND videos but only at “reduced quality” – 16 megapixels for photos and 1080P for video. If you want to store at a higher quality, that counts against your storage quota (15GB as of time of writing for free Google accounts).
Documents and Spreadsheets
Documents and spreadsheets tend not to take up as much space as photos and videos but they tend to represent the most important data – if you ever lose your data and need a certain file yesterday, chances are that it will be a document of some sort. Backups, again, are great but the restore process can be cumbersome. Worse, consider a scenario like this: your laptop is dead and you have an important document that you need to turn in tomorrow. You have a backup, sure, but no computer to restore it to and even if you restore it, do you know if they have the right software to work on the document?
One easy solution is to just make your documents cloud-native. Hopefully, you all know about Google Docs by now. If you prefer Microsoft Office, Microsoft’s OneDrive service includes web-based versions of Word, Excel, OneNote and PowerPoint. They aren’t quite as sophisticated as the real thing, but like Google Docs, they’re usable anywhere as long as you have Internet access and a web browser.
Just remember that just because the file lives in the cloud doesn’t mean it’s backed up. You could still delete a file by accident, or overwrite older but important data. Ideally, you’d want to upload documents to a cloud service and back them up. But realistically, you’re still better off with documents in a cloud service than on your local computer with no backup at all.
The wonderful (or, depending on your perspective, frustrating) things about working at an Academic Institution is the wide variety of applications that folks tend to use. Here, we run into a similar problem as with documents and spreadsheets – you may find yourself really needing to work on, say, a SPSS file. Backups can get you the file, but it might not be able to get you the SPSS application you need to work on the file.
There is no good solution for this at the moment, but one potential option is to use free (as in speech) software. In many cases, there are alternatives to commercial software that can be obtained at no cost and are fully compatible, or at least compatible enough to let you get your work done. What follows is by no means an exhaustive list but it serves to illustrate the possibilities that are out there:
- Microsoft Office? Give LibreOffice a shot.
- SPSS? Use PSPP instead.
- S+? Try R.
- MatLab? Scilab might work.
A good resource I’ve found is AlternativeTo. Type in the name of a piece of software and see what free options pop up. You won’t always find a viable option but you’d be surprised what options exist out there.
Days Gone Bye
Last year, I recommended CrashPlan for backups. I followed my own advice and signed up. I’ve used it twice now to recover from dumb mistakes that I’ve made.
And Another Thing…
- If you’re storing personal or sensitive data that is not College-owned, be aware that putting it on OxyConnect may make it discoverable in actions taken against the College in such a way where you as an individual may not have standing to contest it. If this is a big concern for you, please consult with an attorney.
- Everyone leaves Oxy eventually. Or so I’ve been told. I wouldn’t know, I’m still here. But even though Google makes it easy to get your data, it might be difficult to find another home for it. Just keep it in mind before you upload your entire digital footprint.