Why You’re So Terrible at Backing Up Your Data

Like all things that are good for you, backing up stinks

Photo: Andrew Balcombe/EyeEm/Getty Images

Every few years I have a panic about losing everything, and in a flurry of activity, I buy hard drives, blank DVDs, and subscriptions to cloud storage services. Then, because I am a geek, I concoct incomprehensible command-line scripts to perform backups. I write commands in a jumble of slashes, colons, and letters:

robocopy "D:\" "H:\D" /MIR /FFT /R:3 /W:10 /Z /NP /NDL

Even as I’m writing these, I’m aware that I will have no idea what they do in a day’s time, let alone when I next come to look at them, years later, in a backup-induced panic. And yet, every time, I fall into the trap of thinking that the more complex and impenetrable the backup, the better the backup. This is flagrantly false and doesn’t stand up to the tiniest bit of scrutiny, but still, I feel satisfied with a good day’s backing up, even if I haven’t backed up any actual, you know, data.

The problem with backing up is that it is work you don’t want to ever use. You hope the effort will be wasted. When we talk of backing up, we refer to “redundant” systems—literally, systems that are superfluous. And usually, when something is superfluous, you try to get rid of it. But to back up something, a redundant copy is not redundant. The very words for describing backups drive us in logical circles.

Backing up is time-consuming. It requires thought, it requires effort, and it requires money. You need to put your backed-up data somewhere, whether that’s a cloud service you pay monthly for or a hard drive that you tuck away somewhere. These things cost.

More than that, backing up is boring. It has a dull, worthy feeling to it—the digital equivalent of eating your vegetables, meditating for an hour, and going to bed at 10. How many of us, really, want to spend time backing up our data? We know we should, but we get no immediate benefit from it. Like all tasks with indeterminate benefits at some point in the future, it requires effort to motivate ourselves. File it next to upgrading the OS, reviewing the privacy policy, and updating the antivirus (or contributing to a 401(k) and reducing carbon emissions). Who would have thought that backing up would be such an apt metaphor for the failures of the modern world?

Like all things that are good for you, you’re probably backing up wrong. “Backing up to a hard drive that is six inches away from your computer is #notabackup,” programming expert Scott Hanselman writes. In fact, even backing up isn’t a backup. You need “three copies of anything you care about — two isn’t enough if it’s important,” Hanselman adds. Plus, he suggests different formats: “Dropbox+DVDs or Hard Drive+Memory Stick or CD+CrashPlan.” And one of those needs to be off-site. This is starting to sound like a lot of work. Maybe I don’t care about my pictures of loved ones that much.

Is having a good backup strategy a type of peacocking?

In the past, I’ve tried to find technology to make this go away. There’s a method of setting up hard drives in your computer called RAID, which automatically copies data to another drive. That way, if one drive fails, the data is still safe. No effort or habit change required. You simply carry on, safe in the knowledge that everything is stored on two drives. But this is like taking vitamin pills instead of eating your vegetables. “RAID is not a backup.” It doesn’t stop viruses from spreading, it doesn’t protect against human error, and if your house catches fire, your data isn’t protected. #NotABackup.

And it doesn’t stop there. Joel Spolsky, the software developer who helped create Trello, Glitch, and Stack Overflow, tells us, “The minimum bar for a reliable service is not that you have done a backup, but that you have done a restore.” Backing up effectively is not a case of setting something up and then leaving it. It becomes a lifelong activity of cycling backup tapes off-site and doing test runs of restores and disaster recovery. While all of this is true and correct, it feels so unreasonable to expect me to do this in my personal life. Do I have to run my home computer like a small IT department?

When software developer Jeff Atwood’s website suffered a catastrophic data loss, he wrote a blog recriminating himself. “I am an idiot,” he writes. “I suck. No, really, I suck.” And so, I suppose, do we all for not having good enough backups.

Our digital worlds are ever more complicated. It isn’t even enough to back up your computer (and store an off-site copy, and cycle the backups, and test the restoration). Now you have dozens, maybe hundreds of services and devices storing your data, any of which could have a catastrophic failure at any time. Your phone, iPad, Kindle—all need backing up. As do Gmail, Facebook, this article on Medium. Instagram maybe? What about TikTok? Should I backup my tweets?

Some services offer an “export content” button that downloads a zip file of images, status updates, emails, files, and so on. But now what? Should I have a weekly routine of pressing these buttons, downloading the data, and adding it to my three backups, one of which I store in an off-site safe house? And what about the services that don’t offer such a button? How do I get my stuff out of them?

We’ve become increasingly connected and rely on the network for our information to have meaning.

When MySpace lost all of its user data, the platform added a small notice on the home screen. “We apologize for the inconvenience,” it said, “and suggest that you retain your backup copies.” Backup copies!? Who were they kidding?

In the past few weeks, Canon’s online service lost users’ photos and videos, and Adobe accidentally permanently deleted users’ photos and presets. “We sincerely apologize,” Adobe said. Canon offered its “deepest apologies.” That’s like guests leaving a funeral and shaking hands with the bereaved with Cheeto-covered fingers from the complimentary snacks we paid for. “Sorry for your loss. We’ll be taking $4.99 next month for online storage costs.”

When I’m going through one of my backup phases, madly trying to save my files to other storage, I can’t help thinking of preppers: usually Americans, usually white, usually men, who build bomb shelters and stockpile food in preparation for the end of the world.

Both are exercises in getting ready for the worst and, consequently, imagining horrible ways things could go wrong. Maybe my computer could be hacked; maybe my house could burn down; maybe society could collapse and we’d all be left rummaging for food in bins. I should probably print out my photos.

There’s also an unspoken aspiration for rugged individualism, free from society. I won’t be beholden to Dropbox any more than I will to a globalized food supply chain. I find myself wondering if backing up is a geek-acceptable, 21st-century form of masculine-encoded chest-beating: catching a wild boar replaced with setting up Apple’s Time Machine. In her book How to Be a Woman, Caitlin Moran jokingly notes that “what really makes a man ‘alpha’ is avoiding pugilism… and, as a bonus, knowing how to reinstall Adobe AIR when Twitter goes down on your laptop.” Although I wince at the suggestion that only men can fix a laptop, I wonder if this passing quip contains some truth. Is having a good backup strategy a type of peacocking?

Even the most ardent backer-upper has likely omitted something.

This drive for independence belies how connected everything is. We rely on connected systems to give our data meaning in the same way that we rely on global infrastructure to provide food and products. I think up clever ways to protect my data through increasingly outlandish situations. But if my house were destroyed and the internet collapsed, I’d probably have other things on my mind than restoring my old tweets from nano-engraved stainless steel.

Looking at the data I exported from Facebook, I wonder about the value of it. It contains every group I’m a member of, every item I’ve liked, and most bizarrely of all, “off-Facebook activity”—a list of random IDs received by Facebook from other apps, quite literally meaningless without a corresponding database entry. On April 20, Facebook received “597615686992125” from TikTok. I’d hate to lose that.

If Facebook had a catastrophic data loss or went bust, my exports from it would be useless. It would be nice to have the photos, but our data is given meaning by its context. The group names mean little without the groups themselves. Outside of Twitter, I’m not sure tweets would be useful. Even the ones that don’t age badly have a limited shelf life. How often do we go back and look at old tweets? We’ve become increasingly connected and rely on the network for our information to have meaning.

There’s a good chance your approach to backups is as imperfect as mine. Even the most ardent backer-upper has likely omitted something. But we live in the real world. The perfect is the enemy of the good. And none of this is to say you shouldn’t back up. You certainly should. And there are tools that make it easier: Time Machine and iCloud for Apple, Backup and Restore for Windows. But our attempts are destined to be partial and imperfect.

It’s not our fault. We’ve all been caught in a world of unreliable drives, inconsistent services, and fragmented technology. There is only so much effort we can put toward this. So I run my too clever by half scripts and continue with my occasional, half-hearted backing-up strategy that backs up some things some of the time. And I hope that I never have to use them.

We rushed to the internet, with its half-formed systems and processes, and are doing the best we can. We didn’t have to back up books and DVDs. This is all new to us.

Media techie, developer, product manager, software person and web-stuff doer. Head of Corporate Digital at BBC, but views my own. More at pittster.co.uk

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