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When Data Loss is Personal

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On November 12, 2012, my home was broken into and robbed. I lost jewelry, some vintage tech (my beloved 1993 Mac Duo 230 laptop), and, more importantly, my netbook that I use for all my personal computing.

I have learned a lot of lessons from that experience.

Broken Window
Broken Window, photo by Leslie Johnston

First, I am very glad that I have a pass word app on my cellphone that has a record of all my logins and passwords.  My laptop was password protected of course, but not encrypted.  Because I love the convenience of saved passwords in my browser, I had to immediately change all of my login passwords.  Because a file on my laptop had the ability to connect to online accounts, I needed to immediately contact financial institutions.  I also called in a Fraud Alert to a credit service with which I already had an account.

I had the serial number and receipt for my current laptop, but not for my vintage laptop.  Record serials numbers and scan receipts and keep them somewhere that is NOT your laptop.

I back my data up onto a network attached storage  device, so I am good with that (although I hadn’t done a full backup in 2 months so I lost a few files).  But when I needed to access those files before I replaced my laptop, I didn’t have a machine in the house that could access it.  So, I also need to additionally get myself an external drive that is more easily portable with a USB connection that I can hook up to any machine, anywhere.  And, of course, they could have taken my NAS, too, and I would have been out of luck. Except for my pre-2008 files which I also have on CD-ROMs because that’s how I migrated them then.

I do have copies of some things in the cloud, like photos. And my recent email.  But not my full email archive, which is on my NAS, but requires an application that I cannot install on my temporary machine because it’s not supported on that OS.

And I could not get my temporary machine to recognize my wireless printer. How many documents you need to print is not something you think about when planning for an emergency.

So…what lessons did I learn?

  • Keep an encrypted file of logins and passwords (and account numbers) on some other type of device altogether. But also print out a copy somewhere in case of a more dire emergency.
  • Have _two_ local copies of your files, one of which is easily portable to another location and other type of hardware in an emergency. And an additional cloud copy is not a bad idea (but it’s a bad idea for that to be your only copy).
  • Of course retain data that runs only in specific applications, but try to export/create copies that are application neutral.
  • Scan printed receipts and key documents. Print vital e-only documents.  Keep your print copies and your e-versions someplace secure, and keep the e-versions in more than one place.

What advice do others have about recovering from sudden data loss?

Fixed typos, 2/14/2013


Comments (7)

  1. After my laptop was stolen in a burglary last summer, I broke down and opened a cloud backup service account. Those tense moments between my husband’s “Your laptop is gone” text and his response to my “Did they take the external hard drive?” are ones I never want to repeat. (They hadn’t taken it. If they had, I would have lost every document, picture, and video I’d ever created. I was religious about putting everything on the hard drive, but never backed it up anywhere else.) I didn’t keep any data on the laptop itself, thankfully, but I had removed the password protection earlier that year because I thought it was too much of a hassle; I was generally using my laptop, and doing everything else at home, one-handed, with a baby occupying the other arm, so there were a lot of things I got lazy about — like turning on the alarm system when leaving the house.

    Anyway. Now I pay about nine bucks a month for a full cloud backup of my 500 GB hard drive, and it is worth every last penny. And you bet your sweet bippy my replacement laptop is password-protected!

  2. Hi Leslie,

    First off, sorry about your loss. It would be easier to process if they didn’t take anything that held sentimental value or stored years of work. Something that happened to a relative put that all into perspective. I try to keep everything backed up on two passports, some flashdrives, and on online. The task becomes transferring newly-created documents to the passports (and backing up seems to be an ongoing issue with everyone, apparently). If I back up enough, and if I e-mail documents I am working on to myself (for future revisions) then the worst that may happen is that I won’t have the most recent copy/version of something I was working on.

    So much of it comes to hindsight. Question is, “what is an acceptable (digital) loss?”

  3. Dear Leslie,

    I am sorry about your situation and hope you will recover your items (Craigslist tends to be the place thieves are selling stuff lately, as news reported recently). This sort of things can happen to anyone, which begs the question you ask.

    Beside all the good advice that you have given, I found the other aspect of behavior and emotion management more neglected when we address digital preservation issues: We are humans first, and we have types of behavior that help or hurt our digital life when issues arise, plus we have emotions that derive from our expectations or grasp with reality. The following are drawn from reflections I have had on the subject:

    1- We will lose data and our digital devices; perhaps admitting this fact will help us take actions to protect them;

    2- We will feel helpless and may be awful when we loose digital things, and the notion that we will preserve the entire digital evidence of our life or civilization is Utopian; perhaps, we should expect this and arm ourselves with a sense of pre-preemptive loss that comes with emotional readiness;

    3-Knowing 1- and 2- will happen, perhaps it is time to review our interactions with the digital world and learn to adapt our behavior towards preserving life’s essentials (Why I am I keeping this? will I need it in 5 years, 10 years? for ever?);

    4-When the hard part is our behavior change towards ensuring a secure life for the medium and the data, the much bigger problem is our attachment to both medium and data, and that’s just human. I am personally struggling with this myself and found William Power’s “Hamlet’s Blackberry”, a philosophical inspiration to the digital conundrum. A deep connection with the issues is a good motivator for action. Repeated actions become behavior.

    • Ulrich: You do well to remind us that “attachment to both medium and data” can be an issue. Impermanence is a fact of life, even for those of us who are deeply committed to digital preservation!

  4. Leslie – I am so sorry to hear about this. It is most people’s worst nightmare. Take my gold (ha, ha – that’s assuming I have some), but not my electronic files! I do some things to protect my information, but not enough. With a baby in tow, you know it’s hard to find the time to do everything right. So what do you think is the most important step in a reality where I probably won’t do everything you suggest?

    I have been toying with subscribing to one of those password apps where you store all your passwords online with only one password to get into that. Is that what you use? It makes me nervous to have all passwords in one place out in the ether, but the number of passwords I have, and the regularity that I am required to change them, is making things unmanageable. I don’t have a smartphone, so must use something that is computer based.

  5. Dear Leslie,

    I’m sorry about your loss.

    Based on “living” on my laptops and having seen and had more than a few laptops disappear ( through spilled coffee, theft, young children, and accidents walking to work on the New England ice.), I’d suggest some personal corollaries to your lessons:

    – Consider using whole disk/filesystem/account encryption — anything that encrypts *all* of the files one works without getting in the way of working — along with a locking screen-saver. It’s not perfect protection, but I feel a lot happier at the thought of my systems being in the hands of others.
    – Consider using a program like CrashPlan, BackBlaze or SpiderOak that automatically and continuously backs up all ones local files to a remote location, and that supports client-side encryption.
    – Consider using a password manager like OnePass or LastPass for the key information and account information and digitized documents. I like OnePass because it encrypts the master encrypted file locally, but can also be used with dropbox to sync across systems. (I also keep keep a snapshot copy of this master file with trusted parties – and a copy of the key with separate trusted parties… )

    Personally, it took a bit of time to set this up for my system and family systems, documents etc. , but it now works on autopilot (which is good, because otherwise I’d be too distracted/busy to keep it up) .

    Unfortunately, none of this works for jewelry or other treasured artifacts. Some claim that the origin of suffering is attachment, but most us are going to remain attached to all sorts of things digital and physical.

    I hope you recover your treasured stuff.

  6. Wonderful web site. Plenty of helpful information here. I am sending it to several friends ans also sharing in delicious. And obviously, thank you for your effort!

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