These days we hear a lot about "the cloud." There are services encouraging you to upload your data to the cloud, and you can access it from anywhere and easily share files with others. But the flip side is the fact that you're pushing your personal information from your own computer to data centers where you no longer have control over it. If you backup your computer to an online, or cloud, backup service, how do you know your data is safe?
What Is Cloud Backup?
Let's first define what a cloud backup provider is: a cloud (or online) backup service consists of an application that runs on your local computer which copies files to an online data center. In the event of a hard drive failure, theft, fire or flood, you can then restore (or copy) your data to your replacement drive and not lose any files.
Cloud Backup Encryption
Many files contain personal information, which should remain confidential. In order to do this, cloud backup services encrypt the data before transmitting it. Most services use at least 128-bit encryption (the same as banks use) and will transmit the data via a secure connection. To decrypt the data, your private key is required. Without it, the data is useless.
To make online backups easy for customers to use, providers typically will store the private key for you. After all, if you lose the key, you can't get the data back. But, this means that with a court order, these providers can use your private key (which they store) and gain access to your data. To prevent this, create your own private key and either memorize it (it can be any length you'd like) or save it to another location (don't save it to your hard drive, as if the hard drive fails & you can't read the key file, you won't be able to decrypt your backup set).
Cloud Backup Best Practices
Maintaining your own private key is a good step in securing your cloud backups, but the file structure is still saved in a non-encrypted format. So, if you have a filename or folder name that contains personal or confidential information (such as bank_accounts/5675196254.xls), the filename can be read and data assumed without even decrypting the file. To combat this, look for a service which not only encrypts the data, but also the filename and folder structure.
Local Backup: An Alternative
Keeping a local backup of your data is often cited as an alternative to a cloud backup solution. The argument is that it's cheaper (buy a 1TB drive for under $100 and add $20 for some backup software) and faster (a full local backup takes a few hours, a full online backup can take weeks). However, if you choose to backup your data to an external hard drive, make sure the data is encrypted. No need to make it easy for a thief to walk into your den and snag all of your data.
When compared to local backups, the online service can be more affordable (it's easier to pay $5 per month than it is to shell out $120 all at once) and while the initial backup is slower, subsequent backups only transfer the files that change, making them just as fast as the local option.
In the end, having an online backup with the default encryption choices is still a better bet than no backup at all. Cloud backups give you remote access to your files and protect you when your hard drive fails (all hard drives fail - it's a matter of "when," not "if"). Knowing the different encryption options will help you choose the best online backup service.
Eric Nagel is owner of OnlineBackupsReview.com, a site which reviews various online backup services. He's been covering the online backup industry since 2008.