How do I protect my digital assets?

Oh my God, I have lost all my photos!

We have all heard of someone who has lost their digital photos or dissertation/thesis drafts because of a computer failure. Or 15 years of work.

This has happened to me too. I lost all of my Master’s Thesis I was writing under a deadline. Luckily, I had just started working on it and it was only fifteen pages of text that had to be rewritten. And looking at this incident now, it was a blessing in disguise as I learned my lesson and started taking asset protection seriously. For many years, my method was simple (but not secure): buy a big enough external hard drive and copy all your files there periodically. After hearing more and more of these sad stories of data losses, I read up on the topic and put my idealist-perfectionist mind to work. I did not want to lose my digital photos from the past 9 years, totaling in approx. 28000 photographs.

So, I made up a plan. A backup plan, which has been in use for a year now.

I sorted all my data in three categories

1. The data I have to protect by all means.

First, I figured out what data (files) I can not afford to lose and is personal or confidential. These files will be backed up, and also encrypted. I repeat, these files will be put in a virtual safety vault, behind a password. If I lose that password, I will lose my files.

  • Digital photographs
  • Online identity, passwords etc.
  • Personal documents (banking statements, tax returns, medical records, warranty certificates, receipts of purchases, diary, creative projects, research on topic(s) of interest etc.)
  • Professional documents (memos, notes, exercises, thesis, certificates, CV, job applications, employment contracts etc.)

2. The data I don’t want to lose, but losing will not be a disaster.

This data will be backed up, but not encrypted. If someone will steal my computer and/or backup, that someone will be able to freely access these files.

  • Operating system with installed software and settings
  • Music (FLAC and mp3 rips of my CD-collection, all nicely tagged in a library)
  • Movies (rips and downloads of my DVD-collection)
  • Software (again rips of the numerous software CD’s that came with the computer(s) and also a collection of favourite freeware utilities and tools)
  • Virtual machines (if you don’t know what these are, you don’t need to worry about them)

3. The data that is expendable. I will not lose a good nights sleep if these were lost.

Everything else is expendable data. No need to worry about it. If I lose them, no big deal.

  • Downloaded e-mail attachments (funny jokes, motivational Powerpoint presentations or pictures, pictures of cute puppies and pussies)
  • Downloaded music and movies (you can always download them again, if you want to)
  • Other downloaded material that is not yet deleted.

What could happen to my data?

To properly protect something, we need to know what we are protecting it from.  The risks and potential scenarios that is threatening my data are:

  • Fire. My house could burn down with everything. Computer, external hard drives, paper photos, documents. How many of you has a fire-safe box? I don’t. Protection: off-site backup.
  • Theft. My house could be burgled and I’d probably lose my valuables, TV, home entertainment system, computer with all visible accessories including my external backup hard drives. Protection: off-site backup.
  • Software failure. Sometimes computers don’t do as we want them to. Files are mysteriously lost or corrupted and not willing to open. Protection: simple backup.
  • Hard drive failure. Hard drives have a lifetime and when it ends, I might not be able to access my files. Protection: simple backup.
  • Hardware failure (other than hard drive). Data is not lost forever, but I need another computer and/or some tricks to access it. Protection: simple backup.
  • Human error. If I accidentally delete file(s) I need, I might find them in my trashcan. If not, it might still be possible to save the file(s), but definitely not easy nor cheap. Protection: simple backup.

vaultPhoto by: Anonymous Account

This is how I backup my computer

The data I have to protect by all means

  • I bought two 1.5 TB hard drives for rotating my drives off-site and on-site. My Macbook has a 200 GB internal hard drive and in addition all my photos, music and movies reside on an external eSATA hard drive, which is RAID-0 (1 TB) configured for maximum speed.
  • I gathered all the files I wanted to protect from the eyes of strangers and estimated the total size, approx. 5 GB.
  • I made two virtual safety vaults, encrypted disc images, using a freeware, cross-platform software TrueCrypt. There are other softwares such as Knox for this purpose as well. One virtual safety vault is for my personal documents, one for professional documents. They are 10 GB each. This means that I have total of 20 GB of shelf space in my encrypted vaults for only 5 GB of files. That should give me some room for growth.
  • I found the total size of my digital photos to be 100 GB.
  • The total size of my photos and two encrypted vaults is 120 GB so I prepared a big 500 GB vault. I don’t want to outgrow from my backup system too soon. Formatting and encrypting 500 GB is a long and demanding job for your computer and hard drive, I suggest you set your computer and hard drive in a cool place and do the job overnight.
  • Finally I set up a SuperDuper! job to copy all my small vaults and photos from external RAID into this gigantic vault, whenever it is opened.


The data I want to back up, but not encrypted

  • I set up a SuperDuper! job to copy all my small vaults from Macbook into the RAID, whenever it is connected.
  • I set up a SuperDuper! job to copy music, movies and software from RAID into the 1.5 TB drive, whenever it is connected.
  • I set up a SuperDuper! job to make a bootable copy of Macbook hard drive into the external 250 GB FireWire hard drive, whenever it is connected. So if only my laptop was stolen, I could boot up my computer from this disk and continue working as if nothing happened.


A short summary

My system has two source hard drives; 200 GB Macbook internal and 1 TB RAID external. Macbook hard drive is cloned into an external 250 GB drive. Some contents of the RAID is copied into the 1.5 TB drives in rotation. One is at home and one at a secret location off-site.


Better than average. Average person does not have any backups, and the ones who do have, usually have only external hard drive which is kept on-site.

Score 4/5


Below average. Setting this up took some time and effort. After setting up, the backup is done automatically when I plug in my external drives. Rotation of the drives needs a little bit of extra effort also.

Score 2/5


Not all my data is backed up off-site. Plugging in drives is easy to forget, and in reality it happens only two to three times a month. Rotation of disks I usually remember to do once a month.

In total I would give my backup system the score 3/5.

Final thoughts

Why don’t you use Time Machine or Time Capsule?

To my current knowledge (09/2010), there is no way to make Time Machine secure by encryption.

Why don’t you use off-site backup to internet servers?

Uploading 100GB of data is slow. I’ve also read that restoring from backup is not very easy in most cases. Also, how do I know that my data is secure on someone elses server. My off-site rotation system is more robust and if needed, fast to recover from. When it comes to the possible data loss due to the rotation period, I realise that the probability of theft/fire is much less than technical errors and my own mistakes.

Why did you make such a complex system?

I had the FireWire and RAID external disks and wanted to make a good enough system for minimal investment. My investment was 2 pcs of 1.5TB hard drives and a few days of thinking and setting up the system.

What would you make differently today?

I would try harder to have a bootable clone together with secure and non-secure backups on the 1.5TB drives on rotation. That would free the FireWire drive to some other use and add extra layer of safety.

How would you do the same in Windows?

I have no idea. How would you?

posted: 10 September 9
under: Tech