Backing Up Your Digital Life – Local Private Options

Private DIY Solutions


One solution that is particularly attractive is to write (or burn) your data onto writable DVD’s known as DVD-R’s. This requires discipline on your part to do this regularly and you always have the risk of some of your data being unprotected. When I was going this route I would not delete the pictures from my camera until I have them on my computer hard drive and burned them to DVD-R. I would then take the disc into my work and leave it in my desk drawer to protect against something taking out my house. I know someone who had a fire and their backups were right next to the computer, fortunately the fireman pulled the computer and discs out of the house as one of the first things he did, otherwise years of photos could have been lost.

External Drive

Another option is to buy an external drive and plug it into your computer, backup your data and then unplug the drive.  You also need to physically protect the drive by moving it to a different location or putting it into some kind of fireproof storage. You can also buy external drive that are in a fireproof case. I have never had one of these so I cannot comment beyond that fact that they exist and if I was running a business I would buy one for my business data.

Personal Cloud/Network Attached Storage (NAS)

Something that is a little more convenient than an external drive is storage that you plug into your home network and it just sits out there providing storage. There are several build your own solutions (personally I use unRAID) and there are out of the box solutions by Western Digital, Netgear, Synology and Apple has a unit for MAC users. Just search someplace like Amazon for NAS. It is important to note that this does not solve the problem of physical damage to the unit as it is typically in the same place as the computer with the data you are trying to protect.

BitTorrent Sync

While you may have heard of BitTorrent in connection with illegal sharing of things like music and movies, it is at its heart something called a peer-to-peer protocol. This means that there is no central server that you are connecting to that has the data and controls things. What it means for you is you can set up your own private peer-to-peer network and share data automatically and this network is completely secure and private. This is free for personal users and can be downloaded here.  However it does require a bit of computer skills on your part to set it up. The best method would be to find someone you trust and set it up so they get a copy of your data and you get a copy of theirs. Or you can put your own computer or NAS unit at their place just to serve as an off-site storage locker. Further if you have a second place of your own that has an internet connection you can set it up there.  For those with more technical skills you can do this with a $35 Raspberry Pi and a hard drive big enough for your data. Additionally if you have family members who you know will not take care of backing up their data themselves you can use BitTorrent Sync to automatically have a copy of their data on your system.  If you are not going with an automatic online solution, this is what I recommend.  Actually I recommend you do both just to be sure.


Copying Files

Any of these hard drive based storage solutions will likely mean you are copying large numbers of  files that can also be large in size. Whenever you are copying or more importantly moving files from one drive to another it is important to validate that the file did not get corrupted during the transfer. Windows for some reason is slow in doing large copy jobs so I use a program called TeraCopy ( TeraCopy also have the option to validate the file after copying so that you know your backup copy is good.


USB Thumb/Flash Drives

While these are incredibly convenient for transferring files from one device to another or to just have some storage in your pocket these should be viewed as a file transport solution not as a backup solution. There are technical reasons behind this that I won’t go into but I have had too many of them get corrupted by moving them between machines to rely on it as a backup. Generally a format will “fix” the problem, but that also means all your data is gone. Don’t rely on this type of drive as a backup or more importantly the only place you store important files. You have been warned!

Backing Up Your Digital Life – Overview


With more and more of our life being composed of digital files the question comes up how do your back them up. These files can have significant sentimental value and are irreplaceable. Such things as pictures or videos you have taken cannot be replaced. Content that you have bought can usually be purchased again if you really had to, but pictures of your child’s first day of school, your daughter’s wedding or a family vacation cannot be bought. With a little effort these can be backed up in different ways to protect them. The advantage to digital files you can easily duplicate them without a loss of quality like you would experience in the analog world.  This post starts a series on backing up your digital life and other digital skills for our modern-day.


Reasons for Loss

There are two basic reason you can lose your digital files, hardware and software. Hardware is the simplest to understand and protect against. This is a physical failure of the device that holds the files. This could be anything from a component on the circuit board going bad to the bearings of the hard drive going out. If the failure is anyplace in the system other than the drive holding the files, that drive can generally be just plugged into another system and the files accessed assuming you are not running some kind of weird custom system, and if you know enough to do that this article is not for you. Further the “hardware” failure could also be a result of the environment the system is in, if your house burns down the digital pictures are just as gone as any old school film and prints.


Software problems can be either accidental (oops I deleted the wrong file), a glitch (something stops working in the operating system or data corruption) or malicious activity (some kind of virus). Frequently you can recover from these types of problems, but the expense can be considerable. There are data recovery tools you can use for a file that is accidentally deleted if you do it right away. Further how your system is configured can make it easy or not so easy to rebuild your operating system and often times your data files remain more or less intact. However data corruption usually results in lost data and that corruption can be the result of a system problem or some kind of virus.


What to Do

In simple terms you need to have two or more copies of your important digital files and at least one of the copies should be geographically separated from where your main system is. Ideally this would be a system that automatically copies the files to remote storage and then locks the files so they cannot be modified or overwritten. That was one advantage of the CD-R and DVD-R writable discs, the data could not be changed once written.  However they are not really a good solution anymore as they do not hold enough data for most users needs. Further there was always the question as to how long they would last before they deteriorated. Manufacturers claimed long shelf lives, but they did not have the track record to back that up. Therefore most users are going to find storing their files on another private hard drive someplace or on an internet/cloud based backup. The question to be answered is what level of privacy/security do you personally feel comfortable with and what level of administration do you want to do.

In future installments I will cover details of different options