Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Backing up important documents securely is easily overlooked, and yet very important. I'll look at how to backup important documents safely.

I was deliberating with my son where would the best place to backup important documents, such as passport, driver's licence, etc. We considered ease of access,and exposure to strangers. We came up with saving the document as an attachment to an email,or on a "private file "on the network at my/his office. What would your take on that be ??

I wouldn't do either of those things - at least not in isolation.

Email accounts can get hacked, and private files can often turn out not to be so private after all - especially in corporate offices.

And yet either or both of those aren't too bad, as long as they're combined with something else.

I'll tell you what I do for exactly those kinds of documents.

First, I do need to be clear that we're talking about digital documents here - things that you can store as copies or images on your computer. Paper originals, of course, need to be stored in the appropriate physically secure location; be that your wallet, a home safe, a safety deposit box or something else.

It also raises an interesting concern that I'll raise and then completely ignore: it's not common but it turns out that there are some documents that are illegal to copy; and that I assume includes digital copies, even for security or backup. It's rare, but I need to raise it just in case.

"The key is that regardless of where you store the files ... you must store them in some encrypted form."

For everything else keeping a photograph, a scan or some other kind of digital copy of important documents can be exceptionally handy, both for reference (if the originals are stored in an inconvenient secure location), or for backup or proof of their existence should the originals be lost.

The question is where do you keep these digital documents that are so trivial to access such that they don't fall into the wrong hands?

As it turns out, the question isn't really where as much as it is how.

How to Store 'Em

In a word: encryption.

Make sure it's a good encryption - old versions of ZIP or password protected Word documents do not make the cut here. This is simply too important for that.

I recommend tools like TrueCrypt, AxCrypt or 7-zip which all use or have the option to use truly strong encryption - coupled with a strong passphrase, not just a word, to lock their contents. (If you want to get really geeky, using public key encryption tools like PGP/GPG would be potentially even more secure, requiring that you actually have the private key to decrypt the files in question.)

The key is that regardless of where you store the files, if there's even the slightest chance that they could fall into the wrong hands (and really, that's anywhere these days), you must store them in some encrypted form.

In my case, I have a TrueCrypt volume with a multi-word passphrase that contains all my sensitive documents.

Where To Store 'Em

Once they're encrypted, your options of where to save files opens up quite a bit.

Since I have my own web servers that host Ask Leo! and my other web sites, I simply periodically upload the encrypted TrueCrypt volume to an area on the server that's inaccessible to the public.

But you don't need your own server to keep this stuff. Various options include:

  • Use a service like dropbox to replicate the file across any number of your own machines, as well as the dropbox servers.

  • As you suggested, email it as an attachment to a web-based email account, and then simply save that email.

  • Burn it to a CD and give it to a friend or relative.

  • Keep a copy at work.

  • Throw a copy on a thumb-drive and leave it in your car.

The possibilities at that point are all about what's convenient and appropriate to your own situation, as long as the data is encrypted.

(For the record: I'd use at least two different approaches, just for safety.)

Using 'Em

Nothing comes for free.

Oh, all the software and services I've talked about above may not cost anything, but the "price", so to speak, is the ease with which you later access the data.

For example, in my case let's assume I need to access something from my backup.

I need to: access the not-publicly-available areas of my server, download the TrueCrypt volume, mount it on a machine running TrueCrypt (specifying my passphrase, of course), and only then would I be able to access my files.

Different tools, and different storage mechanisms will have different scenarios for getting to the data.

Which approach is right for you depends on what you have, what you're planning for and how you're going to use these backed up files. If it's truly a backup, then having it a little cumbersome to access isn't really that big a deal because hopefully you'd never actually need to do it, or if you did it would be infrequent. On the other hand if you're considering this as some kind of remote access or other way to make these files available securely, then you'll need to weigh the convenience of some tools and locations - which you may or may not already have - against the security implications.

But all in all it's a very reasonable way to backup important files.

And it's exactly what I do.

Article C4486 - October 14, 2010 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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2 Comments
Ron N.
October 19, 2010 3:24 PM

Do an Amazon search for Clickfree. Get one of their small harddrive enclosures. It already has backup software right in it. Plug it in your USB and it will automatically search for and backup 400 different file types. It keeps all files in their normal format - and not zipped up. It also backs up multiple computers, and keeps the data separate. As a tech, this is what I recommend to my customers. The ones I get are 320 gigs and use a notebook HD. The cost is about 80 bucks.

Ed
October 19, 2010 3:52 PM

I got an external USB harddrive and formatted it with TrueCrypt with a passphrase. I use it for all my sensitive documents as a matter of routine. The passphrase is needed every time I boot the PC, which isn't so bad, but if anyone ever stole my PC, at least they wouldn't get my documents.

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