4 Steps to Securely Back Up Your Data and Have Peace of Mind

Jason Sperling, Former Senior Digital Strategist

Article Category: #News & Culture

Posted on

I'm constantly afraid of losing my business documents, photos, and videos. This kind of data cannot be replaced. However, though necessary, securing data has always felt to me like a scary, delicate, and complicated process. Here, I'll document the rather painful (but worthwhile!) efforts I took to build a back-up system that is both maintenance-free and highly secure.

It all began when ...

A few weeks ago Shockwave Flash Player suddenly started crashing on Chrome, Firefox, or Safari. I reinstalled applications and repaired disk permissions, but nothing seemed to help. Some fellow Vigets recommended my next step should be a clean install of the OS. "Install the OS," I thought. "Doesn't that put everything, everything, at risk?" Before taking that plunge, I first decided to re-examine how I back up my data.

At the turn of the century, I backed up my data using CDs and DVDs. Before that was floppy disks and then hard disks. In the last couple years, I've relied upon external drives -- including at one point using a LaCie SAFE Hard Drive, which uses a biometric sensor, hardware encryption, and a lock to secure data. Unfortunately, using physical hardware for storage carries the my-house-burned-and-the-ashes-were-looted or the burglar-took-my-diamonds-and-drives risks. According to AgileBits, often the biggest threat to our data is not theft but damage or loss. Another downside to using physical hardware as a back-up system is the difficulty of automating the process.

I wanted an automated system to back up and secure my data that was effortless to maintain.

I was fortunate to talk with Jeremy Fields, who shared his personal approach to data back-up and security. The key goal of Jeremy's system is simplicity. Sharing the goal of simplicity, I decided to mirror his approach. Since back-up systems can be very personal and some prefer more intricate systems than what Jeremy designed, this approach may or may not be a good fit for you. His system relies on three services: DropboxKnox, and1Password. Together, these allow for all the data on his computer to be automatically backed-up online and encrypted, and the passwords are stored separately using a secure method. This all happens in real-time without user initiation.

In the process of setting up Jeremy's system, I discovered I have nearly 40GB of photos. Because this kind of data is very integrated with the applications and hardware that I use (e.g., the camera, photo, and video applications on my MacBook Pro, iPhone, and iPad), I decided to add Apple's new iCloud service into the mix.

Implementing a combination of Jeremy's approach and iCloud required:

  • Several hours of time over about two weeks
  • An initial investment of about $100
  • Ongoing costs of about $20/month

Here are the steps I took:

Step 1: 1Password - $49.99 (one time)
I'm storing my passwords with this service (Jeremy also stores a list of his applications and associated license keys). It has some other nifty features, like one-click sign-in, but its purpose is to encrypt my passwords and keep criminals away.

  1. Go to 1Password and click on their free trial for Mac; follow their install instructions.
  2. Install browser plug-in for Chrome and plug-in for Firefox.
  3. Go through the 3 Minute Expert Overview.


Step 2: Knox - $34.99 (one time)
I'm using Knox to encrypt sensitive files, like the ones with my social security number or tax returns -- anything that could help someone steal my identity or genius ideas.

  1. Go to Knox and click on getting started; follow their install instructions.
  2. Create a vault for my finance folders.
  3. Save password as a Secure Note in 1Password.


Step 3: Dropbox - $9.99 (monthly)
I'm using Dropbox to automatically back up my files in the Cloud (except photos).

  1. Go to Dropbox and sign up for Dropbox pro account (2GB is Free).
  2. Install Dropbox on my computer and put my files in the Dropbox folder.
  3. If, like me, you have thousands of files, then be sure to go to Preferences, select Network, click on Bandwidth: Check Settings, and set Upload rate to Don't Limit (this will dramatically cut down how long the initial sync takes).
  4. Test it! When the icon in your menu bar is done spinning (syncing), log in online to see all of your files.


A few other things I've done with Dropbox that make this system pretty ninja:

  1. Install Dropbox for iPhone app (free) for my iPhone, which allows me to access all of my files remotely.
  2. Download the 1Password for iPhone app for $7.99 (one time), which allows me to access all of my online services from any computer.
  3. For 1Password, set up automatic syncing with Dropbox.


Step 4: iCloud - $100.00 (annually) 
I'm using iCloud to store and sync all my photos and videos across MacBook Pro, iPhone, and iPad.

  1. Update my iOS applications to enable iCloud. (Warning! See below!*)
  2. Wait until all my data is backed up on Dropbox. 
  3. Back up all my photos/videos on an external harddrive for the last time (hopefully)! 
  4. Update to OS X Lion v 10.7.2 $29.99 (one time). (Caution! See below!**)
  5. Buy additional 50 GB storage on iCloud (it only comes with 5 GB free).
  6. Sync all photos and videos.


* Danger! There have been reports of folks losing all of their data/contacts while updating their phones to iOS 5. Here you can learn about iOS back-ups. I personally like using Google for my mail and contacts; here's a bit on setting up Google Sync with iOS device.

** Caution!! I found out that my Office for Mac 2004 will not run on OS X Lion; the instant I updated to Lion I was unable to use Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. With a good chunk of my business documents relying on that software, I had to quickly update to Office for Mac 2011, which itself is not devoid of issues. Here is Microsoft's support page for known issues with Office for Mac on MacOS 10.7 (Lion). Here is a list from CNET of thefive things to do before you instal Lion (that I didn't follow, but probably should have ... ).

What is your plan for data back-up and security?

P.S. -- I finally found something that fixed the Flash problems I was having ... Removing bad fonts resolved the problem! I guess for every bad thing (Flash crashing) a good thing really does happen (new back-up system)...  

Here's what I did:

  1. Using Mac OS X "Font Book" application, select File / Validate Fonts.
  2. Remove any fonts that did not pass as safe to use (that is both orange and red ones).
  3. Clear browser cache/refresh, and Flash Player works!

See this Adobe thread for more details.


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