This is what you need to know about data security

8 September 2016

This is what you need to know about data security

Copyright – Die Welt/Worldcrunch – Anna-Sophie Sieben

Important documents often exist only in digital format. But even storage devices have expiration dates. To safeguard personal data and avoid losing it, you should follow some basic rules.

Many of those who turn to Frank Meincke are desperate. Often, people come to him regarding photos, videos, emails, documents, invaluable memories or even their very livelihoods. Meincke is supposed to save lost data and restore it to people’s storage devices.

A U.S. citizen, Meincke owns a company located near Schwäbisch Hall in southern Germany, and his business is booming. “A lot of people know that they ought to secure their data, but they just don’t think about it — until, one day, the data is lost,” he says.

Meincke tells us stories of secretaries who accidentally trip over hard drive cables, of USB sticks that have been removed too quickly, of data that has been deleted by accident, or of a man who struck his laptop out of frustration.

The result was the same in all of these cases: The data was gone. But it is not always human error that leads to data being lost. CDs, DVDs, Blu-Rays, memory cards and hard drives do not last forever.

Material fatigue, production mistakes or bad luck

“It is not a question of if a storage device will break, but when it will break,” says Meincke.

Lutz Labs, editor at the computer magazine c’t, has concerned himself with the longevity of storage devices for a long time, and agrees with Meincke. His advice: Do not rely too much on the promises of manufacturers.

DVDs and Blu-Rays are a case in point. Theoretically speaking, they can last for several decades, but for this to be the case, they must be stored under ideal conditions. “They are sensitive to light and their surroundings cannot be too damp or too warm,” says Labs. And discs, of course, are sensitive to scratches. People who cannot provide these conditions for their DVDs and Blu-Rays will most likely face an untimely loss of data.

Similar rules apply to other storage devices. No one knows how long USB sticks, SSD drives or external hard drives actually last. “A hard drive usually lasts longer if it is not used too often,” says Labs. Nonetheless, it can break even if you don’t use it too often, due to material fatigue, production mistakes or simply bad luck.

But even if the storage device in question does last for the decades promised by manufacturers — or even for centuries — it does not mean that the data it contains is safe, says Werner Baur, who works at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre in Munich, which specializes in long-term archiving of the kind needed at libraries and universities, for instance.

One of the problems is the fact that even if storage devices don’t break, they can simply become obsolete through ongoing technological innovation. “I had saved my PhD thesis to an old floppy disk, one of those huge, square-foot big things,” he tells us. “The manufacturer promised that it had a longevity of at least 30 years. But only a few years later, there were no more floppy disk drives available.”

His data was lost, which is why Baur recommends regularly copying data to new and more advanced storage devices. People should also strive to use the most up-to-date types of file formats, considering that what is currently in use can quickly become obsolete, making it more difficult to read saved data.

Which storage device is the most secure?

DVDs and Blu-Rays are rather unsuitable for permanent data storage, both because they are so sensitive and because of their relatively small storage capacity. Labs also recommends a cautious approach when it comes to USB sticks.

“USB sticks can suddenly stop working,” he says. This is due in large part to the frequently dubious quality of built-in flash drives.

Flash drives, which include the increasingly popular SSD drives, also present another disadvantage: “Data can actually disappear from a flash drive and be lost forever without the possibility of restoring it,” says Meincke. In such a worst-case scenario, even a data savior such as Meincke would not be able to help. It is much easier to restore data from classic hard drives, which is why he believes they are still the best option for storing data.

“External hard drives are the most sensible storage devices for your everyday needs,” agrees Labs.

Experts concur that the increasingly popular online storage devices, the so-called clouds, should never be a person’s sole storage device. What if the provider goes bankrupt one day, or is the target of a hacker attack?

This is how you store your data correctly

“The basic rule is that you should always make two full copies of your data, ideally on external hard drives, and store these separately,” says Labs.

Data specialist Meincke agrees, adding that “you should change your storage device every five years. It is safest to replace at least one of your hard drives every two-and-a-half years.”

In addition, at least one copy of your data should be stored offline. “This will allow you to have at least one backup copy if the data on your computer, in your network or in your cloud falls prey to a hacker attack or a Trojan virus,” says Meincke.

He also recommends producing security copies of everything on a regular basis by using services provided by Windows or Apple’s Time Machine. This will not only save single data files, but your entire system, and it will also correct potential hiccups.

Finally, says Meincke, do not forget to “check whether your data has really been saved.”

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