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The Case Against Online Backup Services – Privacy, Privacy, Privacy

December 16, 2009DavidBackup7

There is no question that with the increased amount of data created and stored by home and home-office users, a backup system must be in place. Of the many backup systems and methodologies in place, one of the most popular methods of backing up to recently emerge has been the online backup service.

Companies such as Carbonite, Mozy, and others provide a service whereby you install a program on your computer that automatically uploads backups of your computer as long as you are online. And while the price of these services is generally reasonable, and the software is easy to use, I do not use any of these services for one major reason…. privacy.

One of the biggest complaints about online backup services is the initial time required to upload your data. In fairness to these companies, any time you make an initial backup of any large amount of data, it will take time. It may be faster to duplicate a hard drive to an external drive via a USB cable vs uploading the contents of that same drive to an online service via your internet connection, but this time investment is unavoidable and reasonable regardless of your backup method.

That being said, I have multiple concerns about online backup services and I will detail them below.

1. Privacy. While my data may be encrypted while it is uploaded, stored, and retrieved, I’m not comfortable that there is data of mine stored “out there” on a server somewhere in cyberspace, out of my control. There are those who argue that most of a person’s information is already out there anyway – as credit card companies, health insurers, and even the government have databases that do store data about people online. I see no need, however, to add to the plethora of information that is already available about any one of us that is already online.

Accordingly, a significant concern of mine with an online backup company is the problem of a rouge or disgruntled employee. There’s nothing preventing a skilled, angry employee from releasing or selling my personal data to the highest bidder. How many times have you heard of companies that “accidentally lost data” and “can’t understand how their extensive security system was breached”? How many times did a company send you a letter about monitoring your credit report because they had a data breach and they’re “not sure” about what or whose data was compromised?

How many times did they offer to pay for one year of credit monitoring?

And more importantly, how may times DIDN’T they offer?

2. More Privacy. One of the reasons I am also not a fan of some online backup services is the fact that the backup client often must be running in the background for the service to automatically keep your machine backed up. The idea is that in order to keep the online backup current, the online backup company’s software runs while you are connected to the internet, and automatically uploads and new files or changed files.

If you disable the automatic update/backup client, then you will remove some of the concerns I have in the paragraph below. If you remember on your own timetable (or set it up automatically) to backup once each night or week, then you should (in theory) not have to have a programming monitoring what you do 24/7.

I don’t like this setup with an automatic backup client running in the background for two reasons — privacy (again) and performance. . Let me clarify this statement by saying that I’m referring here to an online backup client that’s connected to the internet, and that I have no problem with an automatic backup client that’s connected to a local backup device or SAN type of setup – provided of course that you don’t take too much of a a performance hit
.
The first and most important issue I have with the installed software is once again privacy. Although the online backup companies will assure you that they are not collecting personal data from you while your browse the internet or use your computer, I’m not personally comfortable allowing a program to be installed on my machine that watches everything I do. You could argue that a firewall also “knows” everything about your Internet usage, and if that’s a concern to you, you can find a firewall program that only collects data anonymously. Plus, your firewall doesn’t really care about the contents of your 1040 form, or store your family pictures.

The second, and less critical reason is the fact that I don’t like having another program running in the background on my computer, using up more resources. I will say, however, that with a powerful enough machine, that this resource usage should not be significant, but for people with slower machines, you may see a slowdown in your overall machine’s speed. It’s a trade off and you will need to see what meets your individual needs

In conclusion, I’m not saying that online backup providers are out to spy on your or to sell your data to the highest bidder – they aren’t, and I can’t imagine that being the case. But because of the recent and frighteningly growing rash of companies that have “data loss accidents” and “disgruntled employee situations”, I feel more secure keeping as much of my own data to myself as is possible. At some point I would like to see online backup companies come out with some kind of guarantee with promised monetary compensation in case of a security breach – accidental or not. If these companies are so sure that your data is safe with them and their employees and servers, then they should be willing to make some kind of absolute guarantee that they will stand by you monetarily if there is a data breach, as well as logistically in trying to repair any problems you may have from their loss of your data. We should no longer accept companies losing our personal data, and basically saying, “Sorry. Them’s the breaks.”

So while an online backup service may be the right method for you to store your data, the decision ultimately is yours. Armed with the information in this article, however, you will hopefully now be more informed when making your decision.

Shortly I will have a post listed describing my own backup methodology and implementation.

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  • ChiliPepr

    MozyHome works pretty well for me – on both Mac and PC. MozyPro needs a lot work, however – the interface is extremely convoluted and not user friendly at all.

    Use the following link to get 20% more space on a free MozyHome 2 Gb account:

    https://mozy.com/?code=D685JF

    • Why is the interface on MozyPro so different?

      And if it is so difficult, is there a better solution for online backup for business? — though I’m not so certain yet that I would backup my business online.

  • You raise some valid points, but online backup is still more secure than keeping a local backup. Someone could easily break into your house & grab your external USB drive, but I don’t know many people that can hack into Mozy’s datacenter, download and decrypt the data backed up there.

    However, if you are concerned about privacy, check out SpiderOak. They claim a “Zero Knowledge” data privacy policy, meaning you hold the keys to decrypt your data, and even filenames and folder structures are encrypted. Of course, if you lose the key, you can’t get your data back.

    • It’s not theft so much that I’m worried about — I’m more concerned about a disgruntled employee causing havoc, and then having the company just say “ooops. sorry” — as that seems to be the corporate response these days whenever a security leak occurs. Every company promises you security, and many leave you out in the cold when there’s an issue.

  • Sav

    I work for BackupChain and our product provides an answer to the privacy concern: DIY!

    BackupChain ships with a FTP server and a client so you can own both sides of the online backup loop.
    For example, rather than paying an online service (and find one you trust) you can send your office files to your home server. No monthly fees, unlimited everything, and full control.
    this way you know who has access to your files: only you!
    Sav

    • What’s the difference between the free and pro version of your product? I didn’t see a comparison matrix on your site.

      And if I have my own backup server, why use your software vs. something like filezilla and sFTP?

  • Sav

    Hi David
    good questions.
    BackupChain adds FTP client/server ability as a bonus to allow offsite backups. The main advantages of BackupChain over filezilla and others are:

    1. copying locked files
    Say you want to backup your entire system. Database, virtual machines, and system files are likely to be locked and many solutions out there aren’t capable of unlocking them. (Or, they cost considerably more than BackupChain).

    2. efficient compression and transmission of very large files that change frequently, such as virtual machines and databases.
    This is huge. Say you have a 16 GB virtual machine. You would like to have a daily backup. Right now with traditional tools you would need n * 16 GB space for it (neglect compression for now).
    BackupChain scans the file and figures out what has changed since the previous day. It’s not unusual to end up with a daily backup file that’s just 5% of your virtual machine or database, depending on how much your daily change is.

    Imagine backing up your huge databases and virtual machines over FTP: BackupChain will save storage, bandwidth, and time because only a small delta file is sent over the wire.

    3. Scheduler: this one mimics the Windows task scheduler will all its functionality. BackupChain runs as a service in the background and runs missed tasks as well.

    4. network drive support

    5. ability to handle millions of files: that’s a big problem in some other solutions out there

    6. ability to compress in many different formats: you don’t need BackupChain to open the file

    7. keep as many file versions as you like depending on file type. Example: you want just 5 copies of your word docs, but only 3 versions of your live web server database.

    8. run as many backup tasks concurrently as you need.

    9. unlimited number of ftp users (some other products limit this)

    10.. I could go on for days 😉

    We offer a free trial version for PCs and servers. The installer is the same.
    Hope this helps!

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