Your 7 step guide to protecting your precious documents and memories in a hurricane (or other disruption)

I have to be honest and say my home is far from paper-free, but I can also say that if there’s one area of my life where I have done a decent job of decluttering, it’s paper, mainly because I can digitize it and therefore take a relaxed attitude to recycling it.

Now, I’m going to hold my hand up and admit that a lot of my paper decluttering simply involved creating digital clutter instead, but the digitizing process did give me the opportunity to corral off both the paper and the electronic copies of my important documents.  This, together with the arrival of Hurricane Irma (thankfully far away from here), set me thinking about the importance of protecting my key data and I suddenly noticed that even though there are lots of articles which mention the importance of keeping digital back-ups of your key documents and precious memories, a lot of them seem to work on the assumption that once you have digitized your data it is safe forever and sadly that is very far from being the truth.  The truth is that your digital assets will only be safe if you store it in the right way and that is what I’m going to explain in this article.

Step one - Separate the truly important files from the everyday stuff.  This is your decision, but it matters because you want to create a meaningful archive.  If you need more time to go through your digital clutter, that’s fine, just make a separate folder for the irreplaceable stuff because that’s what’s going to be properly archived (as opposed to just backed up.

Step two - Check that all your important data is in a standardized file type and resave or convert it if necessary.  Businesses love to create standards they own, avoid them.  Aim to save all your files in RTF, PDF, JPEG and MPEG and store them as flat files rather than compressed ones (like ZIP or RAR).

Step three - Remove any password protection unless you are 100% sure that the file really needs it in which case you need to give serious consideration to how you are going to make sure you hold on to the password.

Step four - Move any memory related files into the cloud.

The cloud is the collective term for online storage services such as GoogleDrive, Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox and iCloud.  Your data is stored on the provider’s servers and you can access it from anywhere you can get online.  You can generally get a decent amount of storage for free (especially if you use multiple accounts) and if you do pay the cost is usually very low, plus the providers probably do a much better job of protecting their servers and the data on them than the average private individual or small business does of protecting their own computers.  What you do, however, need to remember is that cloud services are far from infallible and so if something is important to you, you really want to have your own, offline, archived copy of it as well.  The reason I love cloud storage for memories and low-security files is because archiving data is like putting something into the freezer, the basic idea is that you keep it there until you are ready to use it.  If you keep accessing an archival device, you actually run the risk of damaging it and your data with it.  It’s unlikely that you’ll feel a compelling urge to look at legal documents and such like on a regular basis, but you probably would want to have access to your precious photographs and other memories, hence my suggestion of keeping a copy of them in a cloud service.

Step five - assemble your storage media and save your data

For private individuals and small businesses there are three realistic types of storage media and I recommend that you keep a copy on each type.  Let’s go through them.

Hard drives

These are cheap, cheerful and convenient and, handled and stored correctly, hard drives can generally store data safely for up to ten years.  Just remember that they are vulnerable to extremes of temperature (particularly heat), humidity and dust, vibrations and strong mechanical fields.  They are also unlikely to recover from being dropped.

Solid-state memory

Solid-state memory is what is used in USB sticks and the SD cards used in mobile devices (and in some high-end laptops instead of traditional hard drives).  It’s also known as NAND Flash memory because you can read and write to it so quickly.  Solid-state memory was never intended for use as an archive medium and I’ve yet to find anyone who can say categorically how long it can store data safely.  In spite of all this, however, I do recommend keeping one copy of your data on a USB stick or in an SD card for the simple reason that you can keep your data on you at all times (literally and password-protected) so if you are away from home when something happens, you still have access to your key data, even without the internet.

CDs and DVDs

You may find this hard to believe but high-quality, write-once CDs and DVDs are a superb choice for archiving your data.  The reason to go for write-once options is because it prevents accidental overwrites and even the highest-quality options are actually well within the price range of most consumers and small businesses.  Store them properly (same considerations as for hard drives) and your data could last up to 100 years.

Step six - protect your storage media

My suggested approach is to put your hard drive in a physical safe (along with the paper copies of your documents).  Ideally the safe should be waterproof as well as fire proof and it has to be more robust than safes for documents only because storage media and the data on them degrade at lower temperatures than paper.  As I’ve mentioned keep the USB stick (or SD card) on you (password protected) and send at least one CD/DVD to a secure, offsite location (e.g. to a family member or trusted friend).  Take clear notes about what is where so you can easily give someone instructions if you need to.

Step seven - review and update

Review your archives once a year and keep an open mind to the possibility of making changes.  For example you may need to add or delete files or change the format in which they are stored or the medium on which they are stored.  Remember that both file types and storage media can date (floppy disks anyone?) so you need to move with the times to ensure your data remains accessible.

One last point

As a final point on this topic, while this may seem harsh to write (and it is), it is also, sadly, true to say that after any disturbance, there is usually some element of looting, so think about what somebody could find if they loot your home.  These days thieves may well be savvy enough to check and see what data is on any devices they steal and if your only protection is your Windows 10 password then you are very vulnerable.  That being so, I recommend a policy of keeping your hard drive clean of any personal/sensitive files, from bank statements to photographs of your children (or even your pets).  This will also protect you from cyber attacks such as ransomware and if you think you’re too small to be a target for such attacks then sadly you’re very wrong.

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