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Disaster-proof your personal information

It seems disasters of all sorts from natural to man-made are in the news all the time. Floods, landslides, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, building fires and zombie apocalypses all can turn your world upside down and rob you of your prized possessions. As more and more aspects of our lives become digital, the amount of “stuff” we care about is expanding, but so are the opportunities to protect and disaster-proof it. Businesses spend a lot of money and effort to ensure business continuity and disaster recovery in case a disaster strikes (imagine how much money Amazon would lose each minute if its website went offline!).  We can take a page from their book and put together an effective disaster plan for the stuff you care about.

Impact analysis

At this stage we will decide what’s important and prioritize things.

Imagine your apartment of house burned down while you were away. You did not have a chance to save anything. (Don’t worry — your family is safe, and insurance money will buy you a new house).  With everything gone, where will you feel the most impact of loss? Scanned old family photos on the hard drive? Home business data on your laptop?  Movie and music collection? The yellow sticky note on your desk with all your passwords written down? (We truly hope you don’t still have one of these, but if you do, please read our primer on password managers).

Make a list of everything that matters and break it down into three categories:

  1. Critical — must protect at all costs
  2. Nice to have but not critical
  3. Can buy again with insurance money

Recovery strategy

Now that you have an idea of priorities, you can put together a strategy for protecting what’s important. Here we are mostly focused on digital data, but if you worry about your physical stuff like grandma’s wedding album, comic book collection or your passport, get a good fire- and water-proof safe.

If the disaster does strike, the goal of recovery is to get you access to your critical data quickly. Ideally, you should be able to walk into a Best Buy, purchase a new laptop or tablet, boot it up, and have access to your critical stuff shortly thereafter.

To make this happen, you will need to plan ahead, and decide where and how to backup your data. A typical household may have several terabytes worth of data spread across a dozen or more devices. It may not make sense or be cost-effective to back up everything all the time. Most of this data probably does not change frequently, and not all of it is critical. First, focus on critical information that changes frequently (for example, transactional data for your home-based business, or the password manager database). Set this data to back up automatically, and preferably in real-time.

Next, tackle critical data that does not change very often (think copies of tax returns, old family photos). These will also need to be backed up, but don’t have to be as recent — a weekly backup should suffice. The same goes for the “nice to have” non-critical data.

Online vs Offline vs Offsite backup

Choosing where to back up requires some consideration as well. Backing up your data online will help you access it quickly from a new device, assuming you have network access, which is not guaranteed following a natural disaster. Services like Carbonite offer automated unlimited backup starting at around $60 per year per device. If you have multiple devices and don’t want to pay $60 for each, a cloud storage service may be a better fit. For example, Amazon Drive offers 100GB cloud storage for $12 per year, or 1TB or more of storage at $60 per terabyte per year.

Backing up offline has the advantage of having quick access to your data even if you have no connectivity to the internet. With this option, you back up to a hard drive, flash drive or some other physical media. For example, you can choose to back up to a fireproof and waterproof hard drive like this Solo G3 External Hard Drive. You can also choose to store backups in your safe at home, but be aware that most entry-level fireproof safes will keep paper from burning, but will not protect your flash drives, hard drives and CDs from heat damage. Look for safes rated to protect digital media, like this one from SentrySafe. Offline backup is a good option for smaller disasters like a house fire, but it may take you some time and effort to reach your offline backup after a major disaster.

Offsite backup has the advantages of offline backups, but intends to place your data outside the disaster area by storing it at another location. For example, you can keep your hard drive in a safety deposit box at your bank or at a friend’s house. The disadvantage of this option is that it becomes more difficult to have recent data because the data is backed up and moved to a secure location less frequently.

The strategy that’s right for you may be a combination of these methods. You may choose to back up your critical data to online and also store regular “snapshots” of all your data offline or offsite.

VPN

Another thing to consider ahead of time is how you will reach your online data and other online resources after the disaster. Chances are, you will be performing recovery over a public WiFi network. To protect yourself and your data, use a VPN service like NordVPN. (A subscription to a VPN service is a great and cheap safeguard to have in-between disasters, as well.)

Always prepared

A good disaster recovery strategy should not make your day-to-day life difficult. Much of the process can be automated. Most phones and tablets now come with automated cloud backup tools. Explore these tools and configure them so that they protect what matters to you. For your laptops and other computers, use the backup software that came with them to set up automated backups.

Lastly, don’t forget to familiarize your family with the disaster plan so they can also get to the data they need in case you get separated or the zombies get to you first.

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