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Spring Cleaning Your Digital Life: More About Protection, Less About Tidying Up

Written by James R. Slaby, Director of Cyber Protection at Acronis

Whether you're a newly minted fan of decluttering guru Marie Kondo, or merely someone for whom April and May are annual reminders to tidy up, it's easy to overlook an important corner of your life for spring cleaning: your digital data. While you're mothballing your cold-weather clothes and sweeping away winter's cobwebs, you should also pay some attention to the treasure trove of digital files and documents that you and your family have accumulated over the years and stored on your PCs, mobile devices, and online accounts like Facebook: tax and financial records, photos, videos and perhaps thousands of social-media posts. You would probably mourn the loss of your digital data as much as your physical belongings were they to disappear in some unexpected loss like theft or fire or flood. 

When it comes to spring cleaning, your digital life is different from your concrete possessions in one important sense: accumulating a million photos or videos or bank statements in digital form doesn't take up much space. You can currently buy a one-terabyte hard drive with a USB enclosure for less than $100: that's a hefty amount of storage - about half a million 2000-kilobyte photos -- in a form-factor barely larger than most smartphones. Further, many consumers are supplementing the storage they own on physical drives with cloud-based storage services like Apple iCloud, Microsoft OneDrive and Google Drive.

Given that storage is pretty cheap and takes up almost no space, the real challenge with your digital life is not so much to declutter, but to protect the valuable your personal data against possible calamity. If a burglar snagged your laptop or smartphone, how easy would it be to replace the data stored on it? What would it take to rebuild your home PC environment, including applications like TurboTax, Quicken and Office, if your hardware suddenly failed? How would you retrieve all the files you've stored on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram if you lost access to those accounts, or decided to quit social media out of privacy concerns? What about your family members' mobile devices: are they protected, too?

That's even before we starting thinking about cybercriminals and their ongoing, highly profitable efforts to steal your personal data (to commit identity theft and credit card fraud) or lock it up with encryption (to demand a ransom from you in return for unlocking it, a malicious tactic known as a ransomware attack).

So the focus of your digital spring cleaning should not be on reducing clutter, but protecting your data and ensuring you can recover it simply and quickly in the event of a disaster, large or small. Data protection experts recommend a few straightforward steps you can take to this end:

  • Back up your data regularly, ideally in a way that you set it up and it runs automatically without further intervention. The more frequently you do this, the less data you will lose in the event of a problem.
  • Diversify your backup copies both in terms of media and physical location. The 3-2-1 rule of backup is a popular maxim that business professionals swear by. It goes like this: keep three copies of your data (one live and two backups; keep backups on at least two different media (e.g., one on a separate partition on your PC's hard drive and one on an external USB drive physically connected to your system, or to your home Wi-Fi router so every household member can use it; and keep at least one backup copy offsite (e.g., on some cloud service or on a physical drive in a separate location like a storage unit or relative's home).
  • Don't forget to back up your family's mobile devices and social-media accounts; they're often the repository for large amounts of personal data like photos and video clips that aren't stored or backed up anywhere else.
  • Consider installing security software that can defend your data against the most common malware threats of the moment, notably ransomware and cryptojacking (another kind of virus that quietly drains computing resources and power from your devices).
  • Teach your family to be wary of the most common method used by cybercriminals to infect target machines with malware: so-called phishing emails which look trustworthy but are booby-trapped with poisoned attachments or website links. If you don't absolutely trust the email's source, think twice before you click further.

Spring is a great time to look at your physical belongings and ask yourself, "Is this item still giving me joy?" If the answer is no, then pitch it, donate it, or sell it. With your digital belongings, the key question is slightly different: "How much joy would I lose if these records and mementos were suddenly to disappear?" The answer for most folks is, "Hmm, that would hurt a lot." So take the time before spring has passed not only to declutter your physical spaces, but to shore up the protection of your digital life as well. They're two good ways of adding a little peace of mind in a turbulent world.

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About the Author

James Slaby 

James R. Slaby serves as Director, Cyber Protection at Acronis, where he focuses on the conjunction of IT security and data protection. Prior to Acronis, Slaby was an industry analyst covering IT security, cloud computing, and networking at Forrester Research, HfS Research, Yankee Group, and The Info Pro. With over 300 published IT research reports, he has been quoted in The Economist, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Barron’s, and countless tech publications. Slaby has also held campaign, solutions, vertical and product marketing roles at a variety of tech vendors, including Sonus, Acme Packet, Bay Networks and Motorola.

Published Thursday, April 11, 2019 7:32 AM by David Marshall
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